Posted: August 26, 2015 Filed under: Commentary | Tags: Books, Classics, Fiction, Human Condition, Politics, Power
The great French novelist Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, published in 1869 is consider to be a romantic novel. In reality, it includes vivid descriptions of France’s social classes, political institutions and practices that lead to the famous 1848 social revolution and the failure of the Second Republic in his country. That event was followed by major upheavals in Europe, particularly in the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Italy, and the Austrian Empire.
Professor Edward T. Gargan of the University of Wisconsin in an essay published in the Encyclopedia of 1848 Revolutions note that Flaubert took exhaustive care to document and looked for testimonies to authenticate the novel.
Of particular interest, in today’s context of most discussed and for many admired “Spring” and other street revolutions or movements are the descriptions of the behavior of their leaders and activists once in power. Flaubert’s main character attending an assembly “..was astonished at their abominable style of talking, their pettiness, their spite, their dishonesty—all these people, after voting for the Constitution, now striving to destroy it; and they got into a state of great agitation, and launched forth manifestoes, pamphlets, and biographies.”
Herman Hesse in his famous novel The Glass Bead Game published in 1943 also touches this particular dark side of the human condition and its relation to power. In a conversation, the main character tell a friend to “consisted of an unbroken succession of rulers, leaders, bosses, and commanders who with extremely rare exceptions had all begun well and ended badly. All of them, at least so they said, had striven for power for the sake of the good; afterward they had become obsessed and numbed by power and loved it for its own sake.”
Excerpt From Flaubert, Gustave. “Sentimental Education.” Barnes&Noble, 2009-06-01. iBooks. Check out this book on the iBooks Store Link: Flaubert, Gustave. “Sentimental Education.”
Excerpt From Hermann Hesse. “The Glass Bead Game.” Henry Holt and Company. iBooks. Check out this book on the iBooks Store. Link: Hermann Hesse. “The Glass Bead Game.”
Posted: April 5, 2014 Filed under: Books | Tags: Book Reviews, Books, Classics, Joseph Conrad
Under the Western Eyes, first published in 1911, is the other remarkable novel written by Conrad dealing with the dark human aspects linked to extreme ideologies. Unfortunately this destructive power continues to be very much alive today.
In The Secret Agent, Conrad describes the “dark heart” of a bureaucrat in great detail. The First Secretary at the French Embassy in London is ready to destroy a landmark building and, if necessary, to kill innocent people in order to force the British to adopt repressive measures against their political dissidents.
In Under the Western Eyes, Conrad chooses a terrorist as another example of the “dark heart”. Haldin, the main character of this extraordinary novel, is a young Russian student who proudly identifies himself as a “destructor”, after killing the hated repressive official Mr. P— and possibly bystanders by throwing a bomb.
Following the successful terrorist act, Haldin hides in the home of Razumov, a lonely student whose acquaintance he made in university. He immediately feels that his future is threatened by Haldin’s ominous presence in his quarters. Haldin says “It was I who removed P— this morning.” trying to make his situation clear, and goes on in a challenging tone: ”Men like me are necessary to make room for self-contained, thinking men like you”, demeaning his colleague, who now becomes an unintentional accomplice. “All I want you to do is to help me to vanish”. With these words Haldin starts to set the stage for a series of events which radically changed Razumov’s life as revealed in his diary “…I, who love my country—who have nothing but that to love and put my faith in—am I to have my future, perhaps my usefulness, ruined by this sanguinary fanatic?”
From here the story unfolds a full range of unexpected developments, showing Conrad’s unique talent as a storyteller with details of the ominous symptoms of the time in pre-revolution Russia. In the story, Conrad uses quotes from a journal that Razumov keeps after his encounter with the terrorist to demonstrate his internal conflicts, family background and the painful awakening path that connects him with extremists and revolutionaries as well as with rich powerful individuals in both Russia and the West.
The plot uses Razumov’s internal tribulations stated in his diary and the interesting conversations taking place in Geneva about the brewing Russian revolution and the incapability of the western world to comprehend it. As this emigre in Geneva explains to her English professor, “You think it is a class conflict, or a conflict of interests, as social contests are with you in Europe. But it is not that at all. It is something quite different”. The professor, who seems to be Conrad’s own mouthpiece, replies to his Russian interlocutor “A violent revolution falls into the hands of narrow-minded fanatics and of tyrannical hypocrites at first.” The professor goes further in his negative views on revolutions: “The scrupulous and the just, the noble, humane, and devoted natures; the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement—but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims: the victims of disgust, of disenchantment—often of remorse.” Clearly here Conrad anticipates with great lucidity the future of the Soviet Revolution five years later. Actually his comments are still valid taking a look at the negative results of the Orange revolution in Ukraine and the Spring revolutions in the Middle East.
Among other characters living in Geneva, Under the Western Eyes also includes an influential Russian writer who advocates radical feminists ideas, and Madame de S—, a rich lady with an aristocratic family background, famous for hosting “soirees” in her chateau with Russians and political conspirators. The character of Madame de S seems to have been inspired by Mme de Staël, the 19th century French political writer, who also lived near Geneva in a chateau and was famous for her “salon” style gatherings, attended by refugees and political thinkers in the Napoleonic era
This year is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the World War I in which millions lost their lives. That war was triggered by the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, three years after Under the Western Eyes was published.
There are remarkable resemblances between the fictional events of this novella and the actual occurrences which bring about historic implications. In Conrad’s novel, Mr. P—, Haldin’s target, survives during the terrorist attack while driven in a two-horse uncovered sleigh with a coachman who gets killed instead whereas in real life Archduke Franz Ferdinand was riding in an open-topped car when a terrorist threw two grenades that missed the royal member but wounded the officers badly in the car behind. In both cases, the assassination plot is completed by a second terrorist: in the novel, Haldin throws a bomb that kills the standstill target whereas in history, after the first failed attempt, Princip, the assassin, fired two shots to an almost motionless car killing the Archduke in Sarajevo and resulting in World War I.
These similarities that could be considered premonitions were again repeated 90 years later with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, 1963. Moreover, terrorist acts that target buildings as in The Secret Agent (mentioned in Part I of this article) turned into tragic reality on September 11, 2001 with the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, igniting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Reading Under the Western Eyes and The Secret Agent certainly helps readers to better understand what Joseph Conrad meant by “Heart of Darkness” the title of one of his best well-known novels.
Excerpt From Joseph Conrad’s Under the Western Eyes, 1911.
Posted: March 25, 2014 Filed under: Books | Tags: Book Reviews, Books, Classics, Joseph Conrad, London, Secret Agent
Joseph Conrad is considered one of the most important writers in the 20th century. He was Born in 1857 in Berdichev, a region of Poland which today belongs to Ukraine. He became a British national at the age of 29, using English as his writing language.
Conrad is a prolific author who wrote dozens of short stories, novels, and travel journals. He excelled at the subject of adventures, including colonial undertakings in Africa. He is less known for his prophetical novels on the political intrigues and conflicts in Europe which reveal his profound knowledge and insight of these complicated issues.
Some situations portrayed in his political novels Under the Western Eyes and The Secret Agent could still be easily identified in the present time. Even if these extraordinary novels are fictional, both contain rich descriptions of certain terrorist plots or activities of the “agent provocateurs” and spies paid by foreign governments.
The main purpose of hiring these kind of agents is to warn their recruiting governments about the potentially dangerous activities of the radical groups. Governments that pay for this kind of “dark agents” also attempt to spread their influences in other countries.
The Secret Agent, written in 1907, is the story of Mr. Verloc, an agent employed by the French Government to report about the activities and plans of socialists, anarchists and other underground political figures living in London. These type of personalities would gather late in the evening in Mr. Verloc’s small shop which, on the surface, sells “obscure newspapers, badly printed, with titles like ‘The Torch’,‘The Gong’—rousing titles” with windows displaying “photographs of more or less undressed dancing girls”. Mr. Verloc was also one of the Vice-Presidents of an organization named “The Future of the Proletariat”
Despite all these links, Mr. Verloc enjoys a comfortable bourgeois double life with his family until he receives a “peremptory letter” summoning him to the French Embassy in the daytime, an unprecedented and unpleasant situation that can damage his image with his comrades.
He is received with some contempt by a new First Secretary, who says “I have here some of your reports” mocking Verloc’s accounts as useless and expensive. “In the time of Baron Stott-Wartenheim (the previous French Ambassador) we had a lot of soft-headed people running this Embassy.” And he continues, “What is required at present is not writing.. now we want facts…”
To convey what he means by “facts” and what Mr. Verloc is required to do to continue getting paid, the French diplomat explains that his government considers it “dangerous” that England has an absurd “sentimental regard for individual liberty position” opposing to tougher measures to combat political dissidents, soon to be discussed in an international meeting on security issues. “What we want is to administer a tonic to the Conference in Milan,” he says, “..its deliberations upon international action for the suppression of political crime don’t seem to get anywhere. England lags.“, the bureaucrat claims.
The First Secretary carries on his monologue outlining his plan to “induce” England to accept new repressive policies. He orders Mr. Verloc to organise a series of terrorist acts to be “executed here in this country; not only planned here”. That will shock and scare the middle class, turning them in favour of measures to make them feel secure. These acts, he says “…must be sufficiently startling—effective. Let them be directed against buildings…the fetish of the hour that all the bourgeoisie recognise…”.
Almost as an anticipated ominous warning, 94 years after this novel was published, the U.S. suffered a series of well-planned terrorist attacks in 2001, mainly targeted at buildings, killing more that 3,000 people and destroying the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, one of the most famous Manhatan landmarks.
In this classical novel, Joseph Conrad demonstrates his deep understanding of the radical minds of his time behind convulsive political intrigues that created tensions and serious conflicts, ending with the First World War.
It is clear that Conrad was aware of the destructive nature of radical ideologies that tended to justify violence and terrorism, disregarding innocent human lives for the sake of an abstract cause. In The Secret Agent and Under the Western Eyes he explores the so-called “Heart of Darkness”, a metaphor of dark spirit, as used in the book title of one of his most famous novels.
These two works, written more than 100 years ago, are not the only classic novels that deal with these current complex political and social topics. Dostoyevsky, some 30 years before Conrad, wrote The Possessed, a.k.a. Devils or Demons, which also tackles terrorism, a topic that regrettably continues to be very much alive today.
Posted: March 2, 2014 Filed under: Books | Tags: Beloved, Book Reviews, Classics, Love
Adolphe is a sorrowful classic novella by Benjamin Constant, first published in London and Paris in 1816. The book has captivated numerous scholars and romantic readers who are lucky to discover it. In 2002 french director Benoît Jacquot adapted Adolphe into a film starring the celebrated actress Isabelle Adjani.
Benjamin Constant was born in Lausanne Switzerland and is best known for his books on politics. He was an active liberal political figure at the end of the French Revolution as a member of the Directory in 1799 and then of the “Tribunal”, but was forced to resign by Napoleon Bonaparte for his radical ideas on democratic rules as well as usurpation of power which form the core of his writings.
Some believes that Adolphe is an autobiographical novella since Constant happened to be a seducer as well in his real life. Like Adolphe, he also pursued older women or neglected wives who tend to be vulnerable emotional-wise, making them easy preys of skilful lovers.
Constant had a 15-year long romantic relation with Germaine de Staël, with whom he became very close politically and emotionally. She was forced to exile from Napoleon’s Paris and settled in Château de Coppet near Geneva where she organised famous gatherings of “Salon” style, attended by refugees and political thinkers to talk about international events. Before Adophe was published, Mme de Staël had written two novels which can be seen as “inversed mirror” of Constant’s novella since the victim is not a tormented married woman who becomes madly in love with a younger and selfish lover as in Adolph, but a married man that falls in love with a woman who makes him suffer as she does with other men. Like Constant, Mme de Staël also used the main characters’ names as the titles of novels – Corinne (1802) and Delphine (1807).
There has been three editions of Adolphe, in 1816, 1824 and 1828 respectively. Each of the second and third came with a preface explaining why the work was reprinted. The novella exists in the form of a diary of a young man which is sent by the inn keeper in a box to a publisher who is stranded by a snow storm and comes across a stranger who happens to be the writer and who has vanished. The content of the mysterious box is described by the publisher as “a quantity of very old letters either unaddressed or on which the addresses and as signatures were illegible, a woman’s portrait and a notebook containing the anecdote or story you are about to read.” The fictional publisher remembers that stranger as “..very silent and looked sad. He showed no impatience. Now and again, as he was the only man in the place to whom I could talk” and “when the roads were reopened and we could have set off, the stranger fell seriously ill”.
Adolphe, the narrator of the novella recalls that at the age of twenty two his father, a government official, sent him “on a tour of the most interesting European countries” where he leads “a very dissipated life”. He looks back to the moment when he falls in love with Ellénore, a married woman who is ten years older than him. Initially she turns down this younger suitor who uses his charms to win over her love. She eventually gives up her stable and privileged status and abandons her husband for a short, passionate and then, in the end, painful love affair.
In the beginning Adolphe finds profound pleasure with his seducing adventure and describes how “younger men.. were delighted with the skill with which I had supplanted the Count“, i.e. Ellénore’s husband, and “congratulated me on my conquest and undertook to imitate me.”
However, Ellénore feels the opposite as she “soon realised that opinion was turning against her”. Women friends including family members, “broke off the connexion with the greatest possible ostentation”. Men, on the other hand, “came …because she was still a attractive and her recent frailty had given them aspirations they made no effort to disguise.”
The happy beginning of the affair soon brings disgrace and social isolation. Adolphe’s father who cares about his son’s future career decides to break the relationship. At the same time Adolphe is getting bored and trying to end an affair which becomes a heavy emotional as well as social burden. The book focuses on the feelings and state of mind of a desperate lover, that is Ellénore, who suffers to see her beloved becoming distant which almost reaches a point of cruelty.
Adolph is aware that Ellénore has sacrificed everything for him, now that she is socially cut-off and continues to be attached and deeply in love with him. He also perceives that a separation will bring utter despair and pain to her which might lead to a suicide.
There are many stories about enduring love which is made possible only when each of the couple is “lover” and “beloved” at the same time. Somehow it is not the case with Adolphe, which deals with unhealthy relationships pursued by immature egocentric seducers who target fragile persons, which always have tragic endings since the seducers, once achieve their conquests, stop being a pursuing “lover” but, for vanity’s sake, allow themselves to be “loved” and thus cause enormous pain.
There are many other novels which follow the same pattern, such as Senso, written by Camillo Boito and adapted into film by Luccino Visconti in 1954. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carlson MaCullers brilliantly portrays this type of relationship. When she describes a love relationship, she distinguishes the “lover” and the “beloved”. Clearly “the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which has lain quiet within the lover for a long time… The beloved may be treacherous, greasy-headed, and given to evil habits. Yes, and the lover may see this as clearly as anyone else—but that does not affect the evolution of his love one whit.” – this is how the prototype of the character Adolphe could be depicted by the author of the Ballad.
Benjamin Constant In this brief novella explores with considerable knowledge the social context in the post French Revolution Europe and shows a profound understanding of individual feelings and the psychological state of mind of those who confuse love with infatuation.
2. Excerpts From: Carson McCullers The Ballad of the Sad. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Cafe. 2005.
3. Benjamin Constant. The Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation, 1814.