index | Colin’s home page | books: 2002–2004 : 2005–2007 : 2008 : 2009/10 : 2011 | language dictionaries

Carnets, by Ludovic Halévy

(Ed. by his son Daniel, the historian.) One doesn’t expect deep political insight from a vaudevilliste, but Ludovic – who held high office in the second empire – has a leveller head than his son, and often says interesting things about Parisian society.

A small pile of holiday reading

Carnets by L. Halévy. See above.

The secret scripture by Sebastian Barry. Quite good.

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. Curiously detached, as if recounting things distantly recollected.

The inheritance of loss by Kiran Desai. The unpleasant Judge is an interesting contrast to the favourable pictures of Anglo-Indians in some other novels. Sai never quite makes her mark. A little patchy: I enjoyed the humour best.

Troubles by J. G. Farrell. Readable but lightweight. (Tracey’s choice.)

Out of steppe by Daniel Metcalfe. Ditto, but lighter still. (Tracey’s choice.)

The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro. Unreadable. (Tracey’s choice.)

Mémoires d’Outretombe, by Chateaubriand
Pages of French
2011 2570
2010 5380
2009 7071
2008 9350
2007 5770
2006 4500
2005 6530
2004 6300
2003 5400

The first pages read like a translation of Hydriotaphia, and Chateaubriand’s melancholy interludes of navel-gazing are almost ridiculous. He reminds the reader too much of Marvin the paranoid android. I don’t get any feeling of being in the midst of great writing, but perhaps that’s just me. (In fact Chateaubriand avows the converse difficulty with English authors.) The first volume is anyhow of only moderate interest; the second is better.

In the middle of vol III the interest was greater still. Maybe it’s the later volumes which are worth reading. I catch the sound of Chateaubriand’s voice now, mellow and pleasing, and perhaps susceptible of parody. Vol IV was mostly interesting, but vol V was uneven. Vol VI begins with a frank avowal of having nothing to say, and I laid ChB to rest.

I’d expected to find a strong reactionary vein in Chateaubriand (why else would a steak be named after him?), but don’t see it. He makes sympathetic remarks about the Revolution which would never flow from my pen.

The worst thing I know about French is that Chateaubriand (meaning Brian’s castle) is spelt without a circumflex, although château is spelt with. So far as I’m aware a circumflex over an a serves no purpose except as an abbreviated footnote concerning etymology. What’s the point of having an Académie if it can’t put a stop to such nonsense?

Henceforth this website is an â-free zone [9 May 2010].

Le Maréchal Ney, by J. Lucas-Dubreton

Another good read.

L’évasion de Lavallette, by J. Lucas-Dubreton

A pot-boiler really, but an interesting episode enjoyably narrated.

Marie-Antoinette, vol II, ed. Arneth and Geffroy

Starts off on the same foot as its predecessor ended, but the interest increases sharply on the death of Louis XV, at which point Marie-Antoinette’s character takes off in full flight.

By 1776 Maria-Theresa tells Vermond that she is “bien touché... de l’état de ma fille, qui court à grands pas à sa perte” (p498).

Maria-Theresa endlessly sought to dissuade her daughter from intervening in French politics, knowing the levity of her motives, but Marie-Antoinette eluded her mother’s strictures and on p508 we see Maria-Theresa trying to extract such benefit as she could from her daughter’s ascendancy. The king of Prussia reckons Marie-Antoinette to have so much influence on the French government that his ministers don’t dare cross her for fear of bringing France and Austria closer together, and Maria-Theresa has no wish to disabuse him of his fears.

Given how much archive material of great interest has never been published, I don’t think the correspondence prior to Louis XV’s death was worth disinterring.

Histoire d’une histoire, by Daniel Halévy

Geyl speaks highly of this book, recounting his disappointment on finding that Halévy had supported the Vichy government. It seems to me a poor piece of writing. The universitaire consensus in favour of the Revolution was indeed detestable, but Halévy pours forth an anguished wail over the decline in respect for Church, Crown and Aristocracy. That he was from a Jewish family makes this a little odd.

In his books on the Third Republic, Halévy implies that a military coup by Henri V and MacMahon would have been the salvation of France, and regrets that neither figure had the stature to bring it off. Say it quietly, but he was mad.

Napoléon devant l’Espagne, by Jean Lucas-Dubreton

JLDB, by contrast, is always a pleasure to read. I can find little information about him. He seems to have hung out with the Action Française, which won’t have helped his reputation. But unlike Gaxotte, whose responses were evidently warped by his political leanings or by their cause, JLDB is always fully human. (When peasants were starving and la Pompadour building palaces, Gaxotte praises her patronage of the arts.) JLDB’s politics are certainly lightly worn and perhaps not very firmly held; his lack of analytical curiosity may have preserved him from being doctrinally coloured. He is good-humoured and he writes well.

It isn’t a very inspiring episode. The Spanish and Portugese come across as subhuman in their bigoted ferocity, and the French and English not much better. Military history is anyway an unrewarding field.

Lettres de mon moulin, by Alphonse Daudet

One or two of the stories were nice, but on the whole I was bored. Had no feeling that Daudet was a natural writer.

Journal, 1945–1952, by Julien Green

Les affres réligieuses deviennent de plus en plus ennuyeuses, les conversations littéraires de plus en plus infréquentes; ce troisième volume pour vrai dire ne vaut pas grand’ chose.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Masterly. Powerfully written and convincing. I’m not sure that Mantel’s view of statecraft is the most attractive.

A sizeable pile of holiday reading

Chowringee by Sankar. Tracey’s choice. Readable and appropriate.

Constantinople – the last siege by Roger Crowley. Tracey’s choice. The author is an acquaintance of a friend. Again very readable, though I wish he used the word ‘exponential’ with more care.

La fin des notables & La république des ducs by Daniel Halévy. My choice. The author was a friend of Proust’s, so the slight preciousness comes as no surprise. Well written and undogmatic, but the evident reactionary whims occasionally lose touch with sanity.

Kanthapura by Raja Rao. My choice. Dull.

Swami and friends by R. K. Narayan. My choice. Entertaining lightweight stuff.

A pale view of hills by Kazuo Ishiguro. My choice. Captivating writing, though the plot isn’t really resolved.

And I read most of Wolf Hall (my choice) on the flight back (in the Indian edition – less bloated than the English one).

Lettres Persanes, by Montesquieu

Didactic and dull, wholly lacking in Englightenment wit. I seem to be going through a bad patch.

Clair de femme, by Romain Gary

Didactic, confusing and dull to me, with none of the relish of other books by the same author.

Marie-Antoinette, vol I, ed. Arneth and Geffroy

In full, “Marie-Antoinette: correspondance secrète entre Marie-Thérèse et le comte de Mercy-Argenteau”.

Expensive. Not the barrel of laughs I’d have liked, the topics under discussion being mostly petty. If Marie-Antoinette had held any power, the childish motives which actuated her would have had a significance; but so far she is merely dauphine.

There’s a degree of intrusiveness in publishing someone’s private correspondence, and I’m surprised the Hapsburgs consented to it less than a century after Marie-Antoinette’s death.

Mercy has some interest as a wily courtier; Maria Teresa has a solid dignity; Marie-Antoinette is a flibbertigibet (but I knew that already).

Journal, 1940–1944, by Julien Green

Still readable without offering anything of great interest. This is the second of three volumes of Green’s journals published in a luxury edition of his works in 1956, when he still had 42 years to live (and many more volumes of memoirs to write). I shall call it a day when I finish the third.

Colomba by Prosper Mérimée

Colomba itself certainly has merits, as has Les âmes du purgatoire, but La Vénus d’Ille is gothick tripe. The whole leaves me very unexcited, as all fiction has done for some time. [Afterthought: I discovered Romain Gary with some enthusiasm in 2008, and was moved by An equal music in 2007, so am not yet quite dead to the charms of the novel.]

The question that weighs on all readers of Mérimée is whether they are going to buy his letters: 16 or 17 volumes, £300 or £400 broché, and probably coming to the end of their binding’s life.

Journal de l’abbé de Véri

Véri left 277 notebooks containing his jottings relating to events of his day, some of which were based on inside knowledge. Extracts from the first 80 or so notebooks were published in 1930. It was evidently the intention to publish more volumes, but this did not happen, which is a shame because Véri lived through the Revolution.

Aborted publication of memoirs seems to be a repeated phenomenon. Hardy’s loisirs faltered after a single volume (out of 12 I think – they are being revisited) and Segur’s memoirs mysteriously end in media res. Presumably the bookbuying public showed insufficient demand.

Véri’s first volume is of great interest, covering the period of Turgot’s ministry, giving a vivid and colourful account of the characters who remain stubbornly flat on Faure’s dull pages.

The second volume is a bit of a chore, consisting chiefly of third-hand accounts of events in the Anglo-Franco-American war of independence. The editor should have been more selective. (More information on the text would also have been useful.)

Véri comes across as a judicious and fair-minded commentator: the reader regrets that he never held a position of power. His view of the English is interesting. He evidently considers English policy as more enlightened than his own country’s, but sees England as haughty and unprincipled in international affairs. His respect for English legislative principles is marked on p. 414 of vol 2, where, discussing the proposal to prohibit the ransoming of captured vessels, he remarks that ‘English law also forbids ransoming, which is a strong presumption...’.

Vol 1 was disintegrating as I read it. I should have the book rebound, but as an act of self-denial am resolved not to do so.

Since I see that Hardy’s editors have issued their first volume, it seems that I have a new outlet for my surplus cash. But my current reading projection is Colomba, then another volume of Green’s memoirs, then Mercy-Argenteau, then something more by Romain Gary.

La langue corse by Marie-Josée Dalbera-Stefanaggi

In summary: the Corsican language is built from a pre-Latin substratum, superseded by peninuslar Latin which evolved in its own directions on the island as Latin gave rise to the romance languages, with subsequent heavy influence from Tuscan in the Pisan and Genoese periods and lighter influence from French in the last 250 years.

The pre-Latin component doesn’t comprise much more than the name of the island, from the word kors for a broken ridge.

When Latin broke up, its system of vowels comprising 5 qualities and 2 lengths was replaced by systems in which only quality was significant. Different dialects mapped the 10 possibilities onto sets of qualities (often 7 or 8 in number), not always mapping the long and short form onto the same value, sometimes confusing vowels which had originally differed in quality. The Corsican dialects had their own distinctive ways of doing this, often similar to those of northern Tuscany, although other aspects of Corsican resemble the southern Italian dialects.

The kinship of Corsican with Tuscan was reinforced by the Pisan and Genoese colonisations, but the dialects are now tending to drift apart. In the nineteenth century Italian was taught as a katharevousa; when it’s taught today, it’s as a foreign language.

If Corsica had remained Italian, its dialect would have been seen as a stream issuing from the main Italian family and rejoining it as languages consolidate. But with Corsica having been severed from the Italian sphere, Corsican will either retain an autonomous existence or disappear.

The blue flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

All plain and simple.

Fermina Márquez by Valery Larbaud

Il y avait un chien poilu qui était habile mais un peu morose, et qui avait tombé amoureux d’une chienne toute belle qui avait des gouts qu’il ne partageait point. Il cherchait de l’impressionner en lui vantant ses propres qualités superieures, disant de telles bêtises qu’il se sentit humilié dans la suite et s’est mis a l’évader. Les parents de la chienne lui jetèrent un os qu’il mit dédaigneusement au rebut. Mais il s’est rendu compte que cette action-ci pourrait avoir des resultats funestes et il ne savait que faire.

Quelques années plus tard on m’a dit que le chien était mort, mais ce qui est devenue la chienne, je n’en sais rien.

La carmagnole des muses (in part), ed. J.-C. Bonnet

‘In part’ because not unboring.

Journal, 1928–1938, by Julien Green

Drôle de type ce Julien, ressortissant Americain qui ne s’est jamais naturalisé français, mais qui croyait le français sa seule langue maternelle; qui écrit des romans qui respiraient la végétation et le délabrement des grandes maisons de son Sud et qui, d’après Charles Dantzig, ne cherchait que le couleur locale; assez lisible, son journal, malgré les affres spirituels. Edition de luxe.

Histoire du règne de Louis XVI, by Joseph Droz

Interesting and impartial, but too much a summary to be satisfying. Almost entirely undocumented.

The book was first published in 1839–42. I don’t see how Droz’s interpretation differs from Furet’s ‘revisionist’ view of 150 years later, nor how it suffers from being too close to the events (which Droz had lived through), nor how the differing interpretatations of the Revolution which have succeeded each other since have had any basis in new discoveries. It’s enough to make you question the value of history as a discipline.

Droz had spoken to several of the protagonists in the Revolution, so some of his unsupported statements may rest on reliable evidence, but without documentary support we will never know.

Egret specialised in much the same period, and Doyle rates him highly, but he presents the same facts as Droz with a rosy hue (though also with proper references). Egret was a pleader where Droz was a historian.

If I’m to find fault with Droz’s book, I would say that he shows a confidence in his statements about ministers’ motivation which can hardly be justified, and which can’t be accepted without documentary support. The last book is much weaker than its predecessors. It has the common fault of narrating the history of politicians’ speeches even when power was in other hands, and thus of failing to provide any explanation. The language is intolerably tendentious: the ‘party of reason and moderation’ is confronted by the ‘factious’.

I’m afraid the more I turn to Doyle, the more I find him an apologist for the ancien régime (but since I use him chiefly as a bibliography, this harldy matters).

Droz shows Louis as vaccillating and unreliable, and I’m coming to be in favour of the tennis court oath.

Large pages, small print, thin paper. This doesn’t do my averages any good.

Les enfants terribles, by Jean Cocteau

A pleasing, slightly traditional tale with a transgressive frisson.

La pré-revolution française, by Jean Egret

Meticulously researched but lacking the narrative sweep which would make it a good read.

Almost every aspect of the Ancien régime has Egret’s approval: the Queen, Brienne, the Assembly of Notables, the parlements.

Marie-Antoinette, we read, was zealous in lending herself to the necessary economies, in contrast with the King’s resistance (p74).

Brienne was at last trying to realise all the reforms which had been debated during Louis’s reign (p160).

The work of reform, profound in its intentions but prudent and gradual in its execution, had emerged from the deliberations of the Notables (p156).

It was not reforms that the Notables rejected, but the authoritarian spirit which marked the whole of Calonne’s programme: provincial assemblies with no distinction of orders and no real powers, taxes to raise an undetermined sum (p371).

But in spite of the surprising leniency in his judgements, Egret isn’t taken in by what’s happening.

The unresolved struggle between King and parlements seems to have been one of the main causes of the Revolution. The power of the monarchy was only slightly circumscribed by the other elements of the constitution, but these included a veto over fiscal measures vested in the parlements (very similar to the resistance Charles I encountered). The parlements expressed the outlook of the rich, but knowing the value of opinion presented themselves as resisting taxes on grounds of the prodigality of the Court. The selfish interests of the rich were merged in people’s minds with popular hostility to the Court to the extent of the opposition being seen as a single party. When put under pressure to relinquish privileges, the Notables pleaded the excuse that the matter needed to be referred to the Estates General, no one at the time having any idea what this would entail.

It’s hard to resist Marxian vocabulary of ‘inner contradictions’ working themselves out: the division of powers in the constitution had always borne in it the seeds of destruction. In Charles’s case, I think the contradiction came to a head through the evolution of the British economy. The King had resources of his own which had been sufficient for ordinary expenses in medieval times; but as social and economic changes led to the need for increased central expenditure, the King’s revenue fell short of what was needed for his role. The parliaments then refused extra funding unless their own demands, stretching beyond their constitutional role, were accepted.

In France the same causes were no doubt present to some degree, but aggravated by a series of wars and bad harvests; while moral forces, I suspect, may have been much more important than in England, since respect for the hierarchy must have been greatly undermined by the Enlightenment.

The last chapter of Egret’s book is the most interesting. Louis having been persuaded to dismiss Brienne, Necker had no programme except convocation of the Estates General; and the landscape changed unrecognisably. The aristocrats had previously told Louis that immunity to taxation was inseparable from their status: their arguments were laughed aside when power slipped from their hands. The liberals who had previously hidden behind the aristocrats’ skirts emerged into the light (speaking nothing but reason for the most part). Then, grotesquely, Necker reassembled the Notables to discuss the form the Estates General should take; the Notables reverted to their old doctrines and departed; and Louis had made his position one degree more impossible.

Egret describes the mechanism by which Brienne was dismissed: “As this was taking place, the Comte d’Artois and the Polignac coterie – ‘the whole class of favourites’, as Brienne said, ‘who viewed the public treasury as an inexhaustible bounty which I’d been refusing them’ – moved into action. The Duchess of Polignac worked on the Queen and the Comte d’Artois on the King.”.

The aristocrats seem to have entirely misunderstood their position. Their role in society was a hangover from earlier periods in which they had had real power; but it was Louis XIV who deprived them of it, leaving them to enjoy the trappings, and when they insisted on it too forcefully to Louis XVI they were swept aside.

Egret’s book makes me view the Louis/Necker government in a harsher light than previously, and so makes me more sympathetic to the first phase of the Revolution.

I read the balanced and informative article impôt in Furet and Ozouf. The author – Gail Bossenga – is another person with a soft spot for the Notables. She mentions that when the King sought revenues from the aristocrats, the latter counterdemanded accountability for expenditure, leading to ‘a political impasse engendered at the same time by the desire of the monarchy to remain absolute and that of the elite to protect its privileges’ (p591). This puts the King’s demand for revenue and the nobles’ demand for accountability on the same footing.

But the nobles’ demand for accountability was merely an attempt to obstruct the King’s plans to tax them; it created delay, diverted the argument, and lent a plausible colour to their selfishness. After all, why should taxation of the rich require accountability when the poor had always been taxed without it? When one of the monarchy’s main expenses was presents for courtiers, was it the rich or the poor who had a right to know that their money was so being used? And when peasants had paid feudal dues, had they been able to hold their Seigneurs to account?

I also reperused the bibliographic first chapter of Doyle’s Origins, noticing for the first time that the discussion is distorted by being too much influenced by class analysis: the notion that people’s actions should interpreted as reflecting the interests of their social classes, seen as disjoint blocs. It’s not that Doyle believed this form of analysis, just that he took it too seriously, sacrificing as a result his awareness of the complexity of human motivation.

Of the nobility he tells us on page 22 that ‘earlier historians were always anxious to show how much it deserved its fate after 1789’ but ‘a recent analysis has shown ... large numbers of them won over to the political liberalism hitherto assumed to have been the monopoly of the bourgeouisie’.

Were these the earlier historians who hadn’t heard of La Fayette, or Ségur, or Condorcet, or Mirabeau? (Two marquises and two counts.)

Dictionnaire égoïste de la littérature française, by Charles Dantzig

A collection of short essays alphabetically arranged, and therefore easy to pick up, and interesting as casting an unusual light on French literature. Dantzig likes some authors who are generally disregarded, sometimes on account of their right-wing politics. So he’s a good alternative view, but whether I’d like his recommendations is to be determined, and with some doubts given his prostophilia.

It would need a fuller knowledge of French than I possess to be receptive to all his observations.

Still browsing: Dictionnaire critique de la Révolution Française, ed. Furet & Ozouf

  • Necker
  • La Fayette
  • Impôt
  • Physiocrats

Thiers’s Révolution, vol X (and final)

It doesn’t seem quite to follow on from vol IX – did Thiers lose his place? He had at least recovered his perspective, and the volume (which is largely military), is narrated with objectivity. Thiers shows no indignation when Bonaparte (previously identified as the oppressor of his country’s freedom) mounts his Brumaire coup.

When Bonaparte harangues the Ancients on liberty and equality the deputy Linglet asks ‘and what about the constitution?’ and Bonaparte replies

De Constitution! vous n’en avez plus. C’est vous qui l’avez détruite, en attentant, le 18 fructidor, à la représentation nationale, en annulant, le 22 floréal, les élections populaires, et en attaquant, le 30 prairial, l’indépendance du gouvernement.


index | Colin’s home page | books: 2002–2004 : 2005–2007 : 2008 : 2009/10 : 2011 | language dictionaries