Monday, December 7, 2015

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.  

 “PECHEUR D’ISLANDE” by “Pierre Loti” (first published 1886; variously translated into English as “The Iceland Fisherman” or “An Iceland Fisherman”)

Sometimes on this blog I have had the fun of dissecting defunct bestsellers such as John Buchan’s The Three Hostages, Somerset Maugham’s Christmas Holiday, Stephen McKenna’s Sonia, George du Maurier’s Trilby and Hugh Walpole’s Mr Perrin and Mr Traill, always with the excuse that old bestsellers have much to tell us about the tastes of earlier generations, even if the books themselves have not stood the test of time as great literature, and are often moth-eaten in terms of their values and attitudes.
With “Pierre Loti’s’ Pecheur d’Islande (The Iceland Fisherman), I’m in something of a quandary. Certainly it was a huge bestseller in France when it was first published in 1886 – the most popular book of its author, who usually wrote for a very large audience. In the original French at least, it has never been out of print. Though the outside world hasn’t noticed them much, six or seven film versions and TV adaptations have been made from it in France over the last 100 years. So it is a bona fide bestseller.
And yet it used to be regarded by French intellectuals as much more than that. It was taken seriously by highbrows. It was mentioned in all respectable histories of modern French literature. Sometimes it was pronounced a classic and a masterpiece. But I think it has gradually lost that esteem. Pecheur d’Islande now sits somewhere in the uncomfortable territory inhabited by old books which everybody knows, which a very large audience still reads, and yet at which most literati now turn up their noses. A kind of English equivalent might be R.D.Blackmore’s Lorna Doone, although that is a very different sort of novel from Pecheur d’Islande.
Reading an English translation, I tried to keep as open a mind as possible about it, but I soon found why it may have lost some of its lustre.
Its central story is both simplistic and sentimental.
Yann (or Jean) Gaos is an “Icelander” or Iceland fisherman – which means a Breton who sails on a fishing boat up to the chilly waters around Iceland, to fish for the swarming cod. He and his crewmates leave Brittany in spring and don’t return until the end of summer. “They had scarcely even seen a French summer”, says the author. Even in summer the Iceland seas can be perilous, and Breton churches are filled with memorials to fishermen who have drowned at sea. Gaud (Marguerite) Moan has come back to her childhood home in Brittany after being disillusioned with the big, smelly city of Paris. She meets and falls in love with Yann at a country-dance, but he will not commit to her. Her family are richer than his poor fishing family. He feels abashed by her (slightly) higher social status and refinement, and he says he is “married to the sea”.
So Yann (aged about 27) sails away yet again. He does not declare his love for Gaud. He is accompanied by the younger Sylvestre (aged 17) as part of the crew.
Gaud pines and longs for Yann’s return.
But two things happen.
Sylvestre is called to compulsory military service in the navy. Sylvestre ends up in Tonkin (where the French are building their Indo-Chinese empire) and is duly killed in a skirmish with the natives. Yann is shaken and grieves, but pretends to be stoic about it.
Then Gaud’s father loses all his money. Her family comes down in the world. She goes to live with grandmother Yvonne in her tiny cottage, where she has to care for the old woman who is sinking into senility.
When Yann returns from sea, he still brushes past Gaud. But finally, seeing the poverty she is now in, he feels no barrier between them. He declares his love at last. They marry. They are ecstatically happy for the six weeks they have before Yann’s departure on a new fishing boat.
Yann sails away. But the seas are stormy around Iceland, even in the summer months…….
You can see where this is going, especially with an author who clearly loves tugging heartstrings and who has decided on a tragic finale.
I do not want to be too dismissive of the tale qua tale. It is indeed melodramatic and sentimental. As I read it, the “story” parts kept appearing in my mind’s eye as tableaux like those paintings beloved of the Victorians, with titles like “The Sailor’s Farewell” or “The Grieving Widow”. Yann stoic in his storm-tossed boat. Gaud pining on the seashore as the dark clouds gather. The tearful grandmother farewelling Sylvestre as the navy takes him away. Sylvestre’s last vision of his Breton home as a Tonkinese cartridge cuts him down. Gaud praying in the little chapel for Yann’s safe return. Of course it is “pure” and free of any coarseness. There is a discreet reference to sailors telling crude tales of “foreign women” in distant ports. In one episode, when Yann cannot yet commit himself to Gaud, we are told that he finds pleasure in the company of other women down in Bordeaux. Before young Sylvestre sails from Brest, he spurns the prostitutes on the pavement. That is as specific as the novel gets about sexual matters and there is nothing to offend bien pensant 19th century readers.
And yet, my sniffiness aside, let me admit that moments of the sentiment sucked me in and I read them with pleasure as the novel’s first readers might have – especially Gaud’s final long and tortured vigil as she waits for Yann’s return.
But here is the main point about this novel – and the thing which once earned it such high regard in the literary world. In many respects the thin and un-nuanced story is much less important than the novel’s descriptiveness. Yann, Gaud, Sylvestre and old grandmother Yvonne are less interesting than the landscapes and seascapes they inhabit. “Pierre Loti’s” real forte is as an impressionist painter or musician in words. Think Debussy’s La Mer. Think Monet’s canvases of the cottage on the sea-cliff. That is Loti’s territory.
What makes Pecheur d’Islande most readable is the description of the Breton fishing boat’s smoky mess-room presided over by a statue of the Virgin Mary (the boat is called the Marie and most of the sailors pray, even if they don’t believe in God); and the description of the pale summer sunlight at midnight over the Iceland seas; and of the autumn fogs; and of the boat becalmed or stranded on a sandbank; and of a ferocious storm; and of the sailors each working his own line in a day’s toil; and of the ceremonies performed when they first sail; and of the chapel with all the memorials to dead sailors; and of the green bushes which flourish even in a Breton winter; and of the endless work of winds and waves.
There is an interesting tension at least inside Gaud, who has been to Paris and seen the big world but who, when she returns to Brittany, knows:
A sentiment of religion, an impression of the past, hung over all this, with a respect for the ancient cult, for the protecting symbols, for the Virgin, white and immaculate. By the side of the taverns, the church, its flight of steps littered with foliage, thrown open in the form of a wide sombre bay, with its odour of incense, with its candles seen in the obscurity within, and its ex-voto of sailors suspended everywhere from the sacred vault. By the side of the maidens bright with thoughts of love, the fiancées of sailors who had disappeared, the widows of men shipwrecked, issuing from the little chapel of the dead, in their long shawls of mourning, in their little glazed coifs; their eyes on the ground, silent, passing in the midst of life, like a dark warning. And hard by the sea, always the sea, the great nurse and the great devourer of these vigorous generations, stirring itself, too, making its noise, taking its part in the festival… Of all these things together, Gaud received a confused impression. Excited and laughing, but with heart strangely moved, she felt a kind of anguish seize her at the thought that this country now was become hers for always.” (Part 1, Chapter 4)
In this, I think we can see at least part of the novel’s attraction to a mass readership. It is presenting a way of life that was already becoming “quaint” even as the novel was being written. Indeed to many French readers, it is presenting the alien and therefore exotic world of the Celtic Bretons.
Yet some of “Loti’s” descriptions are so sharp and clear that they present nature with the immediacy of a good nature-wildlife documentary. Take this blending of sub-Arctic summer sunlight with the behaviour of a school of fish:
 “Eternal evening or eternal morning, it was impossible to tell: a sun which no longer indicated any hour remained in position always, presiding over this splendour of dead things; it was itself only another blur, almost without shape, enlarged so that it looked immense by a troubled halo… Around them [the fisherman] the aspects were of a kind of non-life, of a world dead or not yet created: the light gave no heat; things remained motionless and as if frozen for ever, under the gaze of this sort of great spectral eye which was the sun. The Marie cast on this expanse a shadow which was very long, like the shadows of evening, and which looked green among these polished surfaces reflecting the whiteness of the sky; and in all that shadowed part which gave no reflection one could distinguish by transparency what was happening under the water: innumerable fish, myriads and myriads, all alike, gliding noiselessly in the same direction, as if they had a goal in their perpetual journeying. They were the cod which were executing their evolutions together, all lengthwise in the same direction, strictly parallel, making an effect of grey hatchings, and agitated unceasingly with a rapid quivering, which gave an air of fluidity to this mass of silent lives. Sometimes, with a sudden stroke of the tail, they all turned together, showing the gleam of their silvered bellies; and then the same stroke of tail, the same turn were propagated through the entire shoal in slow undulations, as if thousands of metal blades had given, under water, each a little flash.”    (Part 1, Chapter 6)
I forgive Loti much of his sentimentality when he can be as sharp as that. True, he does use the pathetic fallacy shamelessly, as when Yann, on his fishing boat at sea, first hears of Sylvestre’s death and weeps – and the day is sombre and foggy with a whiteness blocking out the world and completely matching his mood. (Part 4, Chapter 1). True, there are some tiny splotches of the racial chauvinism of the age, as when Sylvestre goes into battle in far Tonkin and his fellow combatants shout:
 “ ‘Chinamen!’ (Annamites, Tonkinese, Blackflags, for these sailors were all the same Chinese family.) But it is impossible to describe the contempt, the old mocking rancour, the zest for battle, which they contrived to put in their manner of announcing them: ‘The Chinamen!’ ” (Part 3, Chapter 1)
But these can be accommodated by those who can see Pecheur d’Islande for what it is – a sentimental and dated book in plot and attitudes, but written by somebody with real poetic sensibility and great skill in colourful description.

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And now, dear readers, let me mention a few matters that I have deliberately refrained from mentioning in my notice of Pecheur d’Islande. I did not want to distract from the quality of the novel itself.
It’s about this “Pierre Loti” chap and his current reputation.
“Pierre Loti” was the pen-name of a French career naval officer, Louis Marie-Julien Viaud (1850-1923), who made his name with a series of exotic travels books about the places he had visited – Istanbul, Senegal, Tonkin, Tahiti etc. – as France expanded its colonial empire. His books combined fact with fiction, many of them being presented as novels. “Loti” had the habit of telling his tales in the first person and representing himself as irresistible to women. So many of his “novels” were about passionate love affairs he claimed to have had with exotic women, and how (always) the affairs ended with his saying a sad farewell. They were self-aggrandising, posing, colourful, melodramatic, operatic (one of them was the basis for Delibes' opera Lakme).
And they were more than a little camp.
For here is the side of “Loti” not known by many of his original French readers, who were mainly caught up in his “romance of empire”, like English readers of Kipling.
Though he was married and had children, “Loti”, who loved to pose and be photographed in the exotic costumes he had gathered, was more interested in the sexual company of men.
This means that those litterateurs who comment on his works now tend to be of two sorts. (a.) The disciples of Edward Said, who condemn him for his “Orientalism” and his distorted imperialist views of the countries he visited. And (b.) those who want to use his works as examples of an emerging gay identity, especially in the way he so often casts lingering glances at handsome sailors. It’s as if he were a French mixture of Kipling and Oscar Wilde.
In Pecheur d’Islande I did indeed find one irritating chapter in which “Loti” bursts into the first person to claim personal knowledge of the places Sylvestre sees in the Far East; and I did indeed wonder if the fisherman Yann’s reluctance to marry Gaud didn’t have more to do with his preference for the company of fishermen.
But of course this is reading with the informed (and slightly cynical) eyes of an early 21st century reader. You can see something homoerotic in the way Yann cuddles Sylvestre for mutual warmth in the cold nights off the coast of Iceland. But that’s it for gay subtext, and unnoticeable to any but a reader who was desperately looking for it.
“Pierre Loti” may have been camp, but in its main impact, this book isn’t.

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