Monday, April 22, 2013

One should feel at ease on these amorous occasions - an early French influence on James Joyce, and also Schnitzler

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 a conscious 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 do 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.


  1. I believe I've met that actress--in other books, of course. The soup quote from Dujardin looks like something Hoffmann would have written, though--or rather the one "n" Hoffman as in the Dustin Hoffman character from Rain Man. Bad jokes aside, hard to see any of all this as an influence on Joyce in terms of style!

  2. Yeah, it was not Dujardin's style, but rather the conceptual innovation of the specific device that caught the attention of Joyce and Schnitzler. A new tool with which they could do some new work. Fancier work than Dujardin was doing with it.

  3. That soup quote reminds me of that odd movie with Emma Thompson and whoever played Colonel Brandon--it's a contemporary post-love story set in a restaurant. Didn't quite work, tedious, but very "stream-of."

  4. The Song of Lunch (2010). I had not heard of it.

    Stream-of-consciousness is obviously impossible in film, yet some of the substitutes have a lot of advantages. It is not all words - who thinks in nothing but words?

  5. I'm in the middle of Karl Knausgaard's hyper-realist My Struggle, Book Two and was just moments ago wondering when he was going to get around to peeing. Shouldn't be too long now; he's just used up three sentences describing his opening of a bottle of Coke Light.

  6. Thanks for posting on this. I'm always interested in these forerunners of/delvers into/whatever the concept and love running into examples before 1900.

  7. Yeah, this is not brilliant stuff, but the technique would be intriguing, and you can see how Joyce found it useful and expanded greatly on it. I think the idea of stream-of-consciousness narrative (I wonder what the writers of the time called it) was floating around Europe in the late 19th century. Even Chekhov wrote passages that are something like this. I do think it comes to prose fiction from the stage. Look at the confessional speeches in "A Doll's House."

  8. Dujardin called it "interior monologue," so he went straight to the stage for a name.

    I hope that Knausgaard toilet scene is a good one. Universal human experience and so on.

    Dwight, good, an exchange, since that is how I feel about some of the books you write about - "oh, that's what that is."

    That one sentence, "Soup finished," is growing on me. I should have put it in the post's title.

  9. I find the stream of conciseness technique to be very valuable. It is really another way to express the human condition. It is often, as you point out an innovative step upon the road of human creativity and it can add aesthetic value to art.

    I have never heard of this novel but as an early example and based on your commentary it sounds really interesting. I would like to give it a try.

  10. I do not believe I had heard of it until Doug mentioned it - it must have come up somewhere, but it sure did not stick.

  11. Oops, missed this, being out of town. Yes, that about sums it up. I enjoyed it, despite its limitations; it's short, and new ideas are percolating.

    I wonder if Dujardin did pioneer the naturalistic toilet scene. French literature of the period is full of characters relieving themselves, but mostly for laughs. Hmm!

    (And thanks for the plug!)

  12. Oh, my pleasure. I have read Captain Cap, although I have not yet made any of the drinks.

    The bathroom passage was an attention-grabber. And then the translator, about two pages later, actually uses the word "nighttown," making me wonder how many nods to Joyce I missed.

  13. Interesting. I'll have to dig this up. The title sounds oddly familiar maybe we read excerpts in school. Possible. Not the most subtle use of stream-of-consciousness but definitely interesting.