Saturday, May 6, 2017

Interestingly Inconsequential: Alphonse Daudet

"Inevitably they marchent à la morte - and they are very near the truth of our common destiny: their fate is poignant, it is intensely interesting and of not the slightest consequence."
- Joseph Conrad on Alphonse Daudet
Notes on Life & Letters (1921)


It all started innocently enough. Long ago, Harry Jaffa had written a hagiography of Churchill to sooth the anglo-American mind. The Polish mind fumed and countered the last pirate of England with a man self-styled for Rudyard Kipling's Cat, who had marked the Second World War with a Naturalist's literary eye. No wonder then that climbing the steps of the Hotel Danube in the years before the 'Years of Hope', Cat Mackiewicz recalled the prose of Alphonse Daudet:

"On s’arrêta rue Jacob, devant un hôtel d’étudiants. Quatre étages à monter, c’était haut et dur. » Voulez-vous que je vous porte ?… » dit-il en riant, mais tout bas, à cause de la maison endormie. Elle l’enveloppa d’un lent regard, méprisant et tendre, un regard d’expérience qui le jaugeait et clairement disait : « Pauvre petit… »
Alors lui, d’un bel élan, bien de son âge et de son Midi, la prit, l’emporta comme un enfant, car il était solide et découplé avec sa peau blonde de demoiselle, et il monta le premier étage d’une haleine, heureux de ce poids que deux beaux bras, frais et nus, lui nouaient au cou.
Le second étage fut plus long, sans agrément. La femme s’abandonnait, se faisait plus lourde à mesure. Le fer de ses pendeloques, qui d’abord le caressait d’un chatouillement, entrait peu à peu et cruellement dans sa chair.
Au troisième, il râlait comme un déménageur de piano ; le souffle lui manquait, pendant qu’elle murmurait, ravie, la paupière allongée : « Oh ! m’ami, que c’est bon… qu’on est bien… » Et les dernières marches, qu’il grimpait une à une, lui semblaient d’un escalier géant dont les murs, la rampe, les étroites fenêtres tournaient en une interminable spirale. Ce n’était plus une femme qu’il portait, mais quelque chose de lourd, d’horrible, qui l’étouffait, et qu’à tout moment il était tenté de lâcher, de jeter avec colère, au risque d’un écrasement brutal.
Arrivés sur l’étroit palier : « Déjà… » dit-elle en ouvrant les yeux. Lui pensait : « Enfin !… » mais n’aurait pu le dire, très pâle, les deux mains sur sa poitrine qui éclatait.
Toute leur histoire, cette montée d’escalier dans la grise tristesse du matin."

Cat climbed the same staircase of this infamous hotel in Paris when it housed the Polish government in exile, before it housed the existentialist movement which "did not yet exist" and after it played house to the above quoted scene in Daudet' s Sapho. 
Daudet is, like Hopkins, a novel affair to my happy mind. 

The initial impression one gets is wonderfully counterintuitive: a French monarchist who hates republics, Jews and idealism and whose only book I can find at first glance in the English translation is a record of his struggle with Syphilis. On the margins, one also discovers that New York arrested a British actress on charges of indecency for performing Daudet' s Sapho (albeit an interpretation from a woman's viewpoint) which featured an on-stage passionate kiss which shocked the Victorian sensibilities of Americans in Manhattan(?!)

All of this is pleasantly ridiculous until one finds Joseph Conrad's ruminations on Daudet and considers the implications of Naturalism as a literary movement. Conrad has a way of commanding respect and if Daudet commanded Conrad's attention, then perhaps Daudet should command respect as well? In any event Sapho is now on my reading list (No, I do not have an actual list, I simply have several books I am reading interchangeably and will now add Sapho to the mix).

Conrad's description of Daudet reminds me of my youth insofar as this kind of honesty (which I pursued with a vigor apparently akin to Daudet's) seemed pointless then but if a man persisted in it, the fruits would be great. I do not know if Daudet persisted in his honesty or became lost in it (a great danger in honest living!), it appears that he may have become addicted to the honest voyage and lost sight of its goal: truth and happiness. One thing is for sure, the Naturalist's methodology is the essential component to a truly moral life.

Conrad writes of Daudet with such sympathy that I cannot help but become intrigued. That Cat Mackiewicz enjoyed him is another hint. It could simply be that Daudet was so very Polish in his helplessly naive passion for simple truthfulness. I suspect, however, that anyone who can be described as Conrad describes Daudet while being a political monarchist and enemy of French republicanism must in fact be the most subtle of aristocratic beings.

In any case, I intend to find out.

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