I seem to have run out of German books to read, and have turned to French. Much of it read on the tram to and from carpentry classes
Three late 19th century authors deal with sex in very different ways:
- - Maupassant, whose short stories I finally picked up at my wife’s insistence (an author considered too lightweight for the syllabus when I did French literature at Cambridge). The sexual aspect are directly but delicately handled, with considerable humour. But what would his world have been without prostitutes…? One book is enough, though.
- - Huysmans, whose religious trio – En Route, La Cathédrale, L’Oblat – chronicles the conversion of Durtal back to Catholicism, forsaking a mistress en route. A world in which pious cloistered nuns expiate the sins of the brothel. A celibate world which perhaps worked then, but is hardly credible today.
- - Camille Lemonnier: Le Mâle. A love story by the Belgian Naturalist writer, set in the Walloon countryside. Animals do it, humans do it. The concern seems to be less unwanted pregnancies, but unwanted sons-in-law in a society where property and wealth depended on whom you married and if she got pregnant she married the man. Very rich language, almost too rich, as if to say ‘we Belgians are not peasants and can write French too’
Perhaps I should add Flaubert’s ‘Bouvart et Pécuchet’, the story of two elderly bachelors from Paris who buy a farm together and make a glorious mess of it. No sex whatsoever, even if one notoriously lesbian Cambridge lecturer of mine tried to make a gay couple of them. Well written, like all Flaubert, but a bit dull. I gave up after 100 pages.
I have also reverted to André Chamson, one of the favourites of my late adolescence. His ‘Hommes de la Route’, chronicling the life of a man who leaves his farm in the Cévennes around the 1860s to work on a new road over the mountain, is a pretty convincing. Cévennes means French Protestantism, but this is not a rich Protestantism, like that of, say the German writer Franz Wiechert. The richness lies in the countryside described, but much of the human content has something poor and mean – in French étriqué – about it, the language too. Another book ‘Le Nombre de nos jours’ (The Number of our Days), basically autobiographical, based on the same family, two generations later, is just too boring, and again I quit.