Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Yourcenar's taxidermy squirrels and Cocteau's Round Table - recent reading in French

See here – voici – the books I read in French in June that are not Diary of a Country Priest (1937) by Georges Bernanos, which is still in progress, if “progress” is the right word.

Marguerite Yourcenar liked distance in her fiction.  Long ago or far away or both.  A couple of years ago, I read her Nouvelles Orientales (Oriental Tales, 1938), a collection of stories of Balkan bandits, Classical Chinese painters, “The Last Love of Prince Genji.”  Lots of variety, in subject and form, all far from 1930s Belgium.  Some of these are commonly taught at the collège level, which is why I read them.  “How Wong-Fo Was Saved,” a parable about the price of the artistic life, has an ending of unusual beauty.

In June, I read Yourcenar’s short novel Le Coup de grâce (Coup de Grace, 1939), a tense story of a love affair thwarted by war, ideology, and cussedness. The war is the Russian Civil War, in what is now Latvia; the narrator is a White Russian and the woman he ought to be in love with is a Red.  The blow in the title is the end of the novel.  Everything, psychologically, is leading up to that blow. For much of the novel, little happens; anything that does happen is grim and horrible.

Mostly  the language is plain and clear, convincingly that of the French-speaking Prussian turned international revolutionary.  Once in a while it is like this:

Conrad worked with his back to the window, elbows on an enormous sculpted oak table in the middle of an office where a maniacal grandfather had heaped up a grotesque collection of hunting souvenirs.  A comical and sinister series of stuffed animals were lined up on the shelves, and I always remembered a certain squirrel wearing, on its worm-eaten pelt, a vest and Tyrolian hat.  I spent some of the most critical moments of my life in this room that smelt of camphor and mothballs.  (p. 214 of the Gallimard paperback that bundles the book with Alexis, tr. mine)

The table, the camphor, the squirrel – that is not what Yourcenar’s novel is like, mostly.  I would not have minded a little more of that, but it is really a psychological novel.  It reminded me sometimes of Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe (1816), a novel with no descriptive detail at all.


Jean Cocteau’s Les chevaliers de la table ronde (The Knights of the Round Table, 1937).  Cocteau’s Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel (Wedding on the Eiffel Tower, 1921), with its dancing gramophones and ostriches and bicycles, its mix of Modern music, ballet, visual art, and kooky text, I take as an epitome of French literature of the 1920s, an essential work.  And Orphée (Orpheus, 1926) is one of the best examples of the favorite French theatrical practice of rewriting myths.  Cocteau’s Orpheus is a radical re-imagining, yet the core of the myth is intact.

Cocteau’s King Arthur story has more trouble getting away from the usual story.  Once he does there are some revelations, an apotheosis, the usual Grail stuff.  I don’t know.  Still, I would not hesitate to see it, if I got the chance.  Coco Chanel created the costumes (source of the image).


I read a book of Jean-Pierre Jouve poems, too, but perhaps I should save him for a poetry roundup.


  1. Have yet to read any Cocteau if I'm not mistaken. Did you feel his visual flair translated fairly well to the written page?

  2. Yes, I would say yes. Especially with Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel and Orphée and likely with The Infernal Machine, too. Not that it hurts to have an edition with photographs.

    I have also read Cocteau's Antigone, but I do not remember it at all. A disadvantage of reading in French - my retention is worse.

  3. Well done! I haven't read any of those.

    Why did you pick Bernanos? Isn't it a heavy read? (regarding the style and the topic)

  4. Well, after the usual, 1) it's a famous book, 2) we had a copy, there was 3) not so long, not so hard. But it was harder than I thought. It is heavy in places, yes.

    The more personal story, of the young priest dealing with illness, was not exactly light fun, but was quite good, and a good topic for a novel.