Many years ago, before the dawn of Google Translate, I spent a long calm summer with an English-French dictionary and André Malreux's La Tentation de l'Occident. It was an exercise in futility, I remember almost nothing brilliant and can only say that Malraux kept alive my dying French.
Daudet's Sapho is turning out to be another matter. It is not that my French is any better, it is that Daudet's book is so much shorter and his prose far more impressionistic than pensive.
One is almost assured in feeling that the mastery of the French language is unnecessary when opening a short book so long on Bacchanalia. One need not master the language of a people in order to sample its wine. But it is possible to smooth some rough edges and indulge in the intellectual pretensiousness that because one is reading about promiscuous drunkards in French, one is partaking in high culture.
Sapho begins as an opera of vanity, mistaken sometimes for French vanity by Anglo-Americans who have so little culture to speak of, it is actually artistic vanity.
That it is artistic vanity is clear to the Continental eye. That it is not peculiarly French is likewise obvious. Depending on who is reading, the French language either masks the banality of the fête with the usual pretenses to sophistication that the use of French conveys or makes the whole spectacle so much more worthy of joyful ridicule. Of course, if we have trouble seeing this, Daudet comes to our aid with his narrative:
"l’expression de ce visage de femme changea, s’assombrit subitement ; mais il n’y prit pas garde, ayant l’âge où les yeux brillent sans rien voir..."
When we were very young, of ourselves it could no doubt likewise be said that we took notice of very little while making eyes that shone very big indeed. The juvenile reader no doubt finds in the opening of Sapho the pent up sexual aspirations of every self assured intellectual, ignored by sensible women for football players and business majors, having failed to achieve Nietzsche's status despite having such big hammers, they lose themselves like Lovis Corinth in the illusion of an artist's life, with very few having his good fortune of having their talents (and lives) rescued by loving women.
"J’aime tant ses vers… je serais si heureux de le connaître…"
Thank God that most great writers are dead and we are spared the horrors incumbent upon those whose idols are alive and well enough to be human, all too human. If even we find ourselves echoing the sentiment above, we can do no more harm to our esteem for the poet than to make the mistake of reading his biography. Daudet's protagonist is, of course, in the unfortunate situation of taking his company very seriously indeed.
《Ô Sapho, j’ai donné tout le sang de mes veines…》
Elle se retourna vivement, avec le cliquetis de sa parure barbare :
— Que dites-vous là ?
C’étaient des vers de La Gournerie ; il s’étonnait qu’elle ne les connût pas.
« Je n’aime pas les vers… » fit-elle d’un ton bref ; et elle restait debout, le sourcil froncé, regardant la danse et froissant nerveusement les belles grappes lilas qui pendaient devant elle. Puis, avec l’effort d’une décision qui lui coûtait : « Bonsoir… » et elle disparut.
Indeed. How many great and noble young minds were crushed by this collision between the word and the flesh? The scientific mind is secure from such distress by virtue of the objectification of the universe. But the artist - oh what misery! To find that there is no City in Speech, merely Sodom. Daudet's virtue as a writer is that unlike, say, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, he exposes not just the façade of the artistic world, but the tumultuous passions that accompany it. Above all, there is none of this American fascination with "Paris!" as anything but the capital of rubbish, where men of tender sensitivity whose role in the Republic should be that of Censor are reduced to being Berlin Secessionists or - in modern France - proclaiming "je suis Charlie."
Picture 1: Lovis Corinth, Bacchanalia
Picture 2: William Adolphe Bougeureau, Pifferaro