Monday, May 29, 2017

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.   

“THE TRAGIC COMEDIANS - A Study in a Well-Known Story ” by George Meredith (first published in 1880)

            George Meredith (1828-1909) began his novel-writing career with an Arabian Nights fantasy called The Shaving of Shagpat, and he did write a two-novel sequence (Sandra Belloni and Vittoria) part of which dealt with a singer involved in the Italian wars of unification. But nearly all his novels are set among the British gentry, aristocracy and intellectual chattering classes. You might already know this from earlier postings on this blog about Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel and Beauchamp’s Career and TheEgoist and Diana of the Crossways. Therefore The Tragic Comedians is something of an aberration in his work. It is set entirely in continental Europe, none of its characters is British and it touches on radical or revolutionary politics, even though nearly all of its main characters are upper-crust. It is also much shorter than all Meredith’s other novels – just a little shy of 200 pages in my old battered Penguin copy.

The novel is very loosely based on a real case – hence Meredith’s subtitle “A Study in a Well-Known Story.” But of that more later.

To give a short synopsis – a Jewish socialist intellectual is loved by the Gentile daughter of a wealthy military man. But he is killed in a duel with the aristocrat her parents have chosen for her to marry.

The longer synopsis would go thus: General von Rudiger’s daughter Clotilde in engaged to be married to the amiable, impressionable young Prince Marko Romaris. She has heard of the handsome, eloquent Jewish socialist leader Sigismund Alvan. But she has never met him. When, in Switzerland, she does at last meet him, she is at first struck by his Jewishness, but then she is rapidly swept up in passionate love for him. He reciprocates her feelings.

He tells her to ignore the calumnies that have been spread about him, especially the rumour that he has had an affair with Baroness Lucie von Crefeldt. He has simply been sympathetic to her after her husband had mistreated her. Starry-eyed, Clotilde accepts his version of events. She would be quite prepared to elope with Alvan, but Alvan does not want society to think he took advantage of her.

 So he goes to General von Rudiger to get approval for their marriage.

Outraged at this Jewish upstart’s request, the general removes his daughter from the scene and has her locked up. She is made to write a letter repudiating Alvan. Alvan is shocked to receive the letter, but then reflects that it must have been written under duress. Using his friend Colonel von Tresten as a go-between, Alvan gets access to General von Rudiger, and pleads to see Clotilde, if only to hear her repudiation from her own lips. But by this stage, Clotilde has been unimpressed by the cold reception she received when she turned to Baroness Lucie von Crefeldt for advice. Part of her mind believes there might have been some truth in the rumour of Alvan’s affair with Lucie after all. She is also unimpressed by the stiff formality of Alvan’s go-between Colonel von Tresten.  So she now does tell Alvan to his face that she repudiates him.

Callow Prince Marko Romanis, who has remained pathetically devoted to Clotilde throughout the narrative, receives a letter from Alvan challenging him to a duel.

In the duel Marko shoots Alvan dead.

Clotilde, unable to believe Providence could let Alvan die, finds that the only way she can escape from her parents’ oppressive home is to marry Marko. This she does.

At which point you are doubtless thinking “What a contrived, artificial, melodramatic story!

Except that, as its subtitle says, The Tragic Comedians was based on a true story. Meredith wrote it after having read the memoirs of the aristocratic Helene von Donniges, who had had a tragic love affair with the German-Jewish Social Democrat leader Ferdinand Lassalle. Lassalle was killed (in 1864, at the age of 39) in a duel with Helene’s betrothed Prince Yanko Racowotza. Obviously Helene, Lassalle and Yanko are the novel’s Clotilde, Alvan and Marko. In real life Helene von Donniges really was locked up by her father to prevent her from seeing Lassalle, and Lassalle sent challenges to a duel not only to Helene’s fiance but also to Helene’s father. Helene von Donniges did end up marrying Prince Yanko Racowotza.

The fact that it is based on a true story provides Meredith with a warrant to make his story more melodramatic than was his wont.

Conversations in this novel often have the qualities of operatic arias – they are florid, overwrought and poetic, presumably intended by Meredith to give us the essence of the characters’ feelings without pretending to be naturalistic. Alvan habitually makes such declarations to Clotilde as “I know we must meet. It is no true day so long as the goddess of the morning and the sun-god are kept asunder.” (Chapter 4)

As in The Egoist, the novel Meredith wrote just before The Tragic Comedians, the small cast of characters leaves the impression of an hermetically-sealed society, even though there is the odd reference to larger historical forces. Alvan is, after all, a socialist leader who idolises Garibaldi and has conferred with “Ironsides” (meaning Bismarck). For modern readers it may seem odd, given that the story is so patently based on episodes in the life of Ferdinand Lassalle, that there appear to be no references to a character based on Karl Marx. Lassalle was an occasional collaborator with, but more often a polemical sparring partner against, Marx. But bear in mind that in 1880, to Meredith’s English readers, Karl Marx was just another European political philosopher, of whom there were many.

What does that title “tragic comedians” mean? As I read it, it is consonant with a theme that is common in Meredith’s work, and that was especially prominent in The Egoist. The fate of Alvan and Clotilde may be tragic, but they are also like play-sctors, conforming to roles that they feel have been assigned to them. Alvan is (as Lassalle was at the time of his death) about 40. Clotilde is considerably younger than he. Alvan’s love for Clotilde is strong, but there is a wide streak of egotism and play-acting to it. He expects Clotilde to be both an asset to him and an admirer of him – which she is.

Speaking of Clotilde to Baroness Lucie von Crefeldt, Alvan orates  egotistically:

I give her a soul!... I am the wine and she the crystal cup. She has avowed it again and again. You read her as she is when away from me. Then she is a reed, a weed, what you will; she is unfit to contend when she stands alone. But when I am beside her, when we are together – the moments I have her at arms’ length she will be part of me by the magic I have seen each time we encountered…” (Chapter 14)

 Clotilde (in pointedly repudiating Alvan) and Alvan (in fighting a duel) both do things that they are not really inclined to do, but that they feel compelled to do by the public roles they are expected to play. They are “comedians” in the European sense of “actors”. As far as my own reading is concerned, the novel by another author that comes closest in this theme to Meredith’s The Tragic Comedians is Jean Cocteau’s novella Thomas, l’Imposteur, in which a young First World War-era impostor, by acting out the role being an heroic young soldier ends up literally being one. Alvan and Clotilde act out the roles of being tragic lovers – and that is what they become.

Of course Meredith also touches on the idea of antisemitism in European society. When Clotilde first sights Alvan, Meredith remarks:

The Jew was to Clotilde as flesh of the swine to the Jew. Her parents had the same abhorrence of Jewry. One of the favourite similes of the family for whatsoever grunted in grossness, wriggled with meaness, was Jew…” (Chapter 2)

Later, however, we are told that she overcomes her inherited prejudice. She had expected:

an Esau of the cities.. [but] … seeing superb manly beauty in the place of the thick-featured sodden satyr of her miscreating fancy, the irresistible was revealed to her on its divinest whirlwind.” (Chapter 4)

Even this urgent theme, however, is not the novel’s essence. What moves Meredith is his ironical impulse to see his characters as play actors.

Political footnote: For the record, the small tribe of ardent Marxists now despise Ferdinand Lassalle, and see him as the originator of the damnable heresy of “reformism”. I have just come from reading “Marx and the Lassalleans” a modern attack on Lassalle on the International Socialists Organisation of Aotearoa / New Zealand website. Among other things, the article accuses Lassalle of shameless self-promotion, histrionics and profound egotism. Oddly enough, this comes close to the way George Meredith presents his fictionalised version of Lassalle.

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