Fan-de-Siècle

Brigid Brophy

  • Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs, A Translation and Study by Richard Bowring
    Princeton, 290 pp, £21.70, August 1982, ISBN 0 691 06507 1
  • Evelina by Fanny Burney
    Oxford, 421 pp, £2.50, April 1982, ISBN 0 19 281596 2
  • The Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney edited by Peter Hughes and Warren Derry
    Oxford, 624 pp, £37.50, September 1980, ISBN 0 19 812507 0
  • Colette by Joanna Richardson
    Methuen, 276 pp, £12.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 413 48780 6
  • Letters from Colette translated by Robert Phelps
    Virago, 214 pp, £7.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 86068 252 8

A small ad in Private Eye seeks a companion ‘sexy, feminine and discrete’. Siamese twins, I suppose, need not bother to apply. It is harder to divine why this translation of Murasaki’s Diary renders one passage by the words: ‘This is not to say that her women are always so genteel; if they forget themselves they can come out with the most indiscrete verses.’ Perhaps, in becoming conversant with Japanese to a degree he makes plain even to me who know not a syllable of the language, Richard Bowring has forfeited some command of English. That looks all the likelier when he skids into bad grammar: ‘ ... sent to whomever was to copy out the story’. Or perhaps both the ‘indiscrete’ and the ‘whomever’ are misprints. If so, there is something moving in the persistence – and the persistent justification – of literary fears. It is roughly a thousand years since the son-in-law of the Emperor of Japan filched a copy of Murasaki’s novel from her room at court and she recorded in her Diary the quintessential literary dread that it might be an inaccurate copy that ‘would hurt my reputation’.

She was a widow in her thirties, already famous as the author of that rumbustious, read-on yet delicate novel The Tale of Genji, when she joined the entourage of the Emperor’s daughter in the combined capacities of lady-in-waiting and literary lion. Her Diary of (chiefly) court life is, Mr Bowring considers, more probably a reconstruction in tranquillity than a compilation of day-to-day entries.

It opens, in 1008 AD (Kanko 5 in the Japanese calendar of the time), with what might be the beginning of the scenario for an extra act to be interpolated between Acts One and Two of Madama Butterfly. It is marred but not ruined by touches of the seedsman’s catalogue in the translation: the beauty of the imperial palace in the autumn ‘defies description’, and the foliage beside the lake becomes ‘a blaze of color’. As night descends, chanting begins; then gongs sound; just before dawn, a procession of 20 finely-robed priests carries ‘the consecrated objects’ across ‘the magnificent Chinese bridges in the garden’. The Emperor’s daughter is about to give birth to her first child.

In what Mr Bowring sees as a bit of political good luck that strengthened the dynasty and Murasaki describes as the occasion of general euphoria, the princess is safely delivered of a son, one of whose first acts is to pee on his father. He is truly to the manner born at this court, which resembles that of Edward VII in its mixture of rigid and often unfathomable rules (women waiting on the princess must wear their hair dressed upwards, only people of certain ranks are entitled to wear clothes of the ‘forbidden colours’) with simple-minded horseplay. During one ceremony, a drunken Provisional Middle Counselor ‘started’, Murasaki records, ‘pulling at Lady Hyobu’s robes and singing dreadful songs’. During another, ‘the younger women were greatly amused,’ she notes, when the ceremonial rice was thrown and a religious dignitary hid his face and his (presumably bald-shaven) head beneath a fan to avoid being hit.

Murasaki is clearly writing for publication and probably with propagandist intent. She does not abstain from the sort of flattery royalty usually exacts from its pet writers: ‘I do find it extraordinary how she can ... make me quite forget my troubles; if only I had sought solace for my unhappiness by taking service with Her Majesty much earlier.’ Even so, this is recognisably the world of Genji, attractive yet enigmatic in its perhaps over-refined aestheticism, and recognisably, if one dare judge through the hazards of translation, the work of Murasaki. The formality is pierced by the personal (‘ “Is this the moon that used to praise my beauty?” I say to myself ... Then, realising that I am making precisely that mistake which must be avoided, I become uneasy and move inside a little, while still, of course, continuing to fret and worry’) and by an almost fin-de-siècle or indeed fan-de-siècle dying fall (‘the fans women had then were so beautiful’), as well as by the perennially literary experiences: ‘I tried rereading the Tale, but it did not seem to be the same as before and I was disappointed.’

It is a world where you expect to be judged by the colour as well as the elegance of the characters you write/paint, and where you are probably writing/painting them in the course of addressing, to lover, friend or mere acquaintance, a five-line poem (discrete or indiscrete, as the editor might say), to which the recipient is expected to supply a rejoinder in kind, perhaps borrowing your brush and improvising it on the spot. Such poems and such pairs of poems by different hands are the core of the second Murasaki document translated in the volume, her Poetic Memoirs, her own collection of poems by and to her, with her brief note on the occasion of each, supplemented by Mr Bowring’s longer notes on dates, texts and word-plays in the originals. The greatest play, however, is on the pathetic fallacy. Sometimes a poem distils its emotional content from the colour and shape of the single flower that might accompany it as a gift, but for the most part the verses go, in a phrase (I think) of Keats’s, gaping after weather, with the result that an exchange of poems is often a more formal but less ritualised version of the exchanges that take place in England a million times a day where each speaker makes a statement about the weather that is at the same time a statement of his own mood.

I went to the Kamo shrine. The dawn was beautiful; all it lacked was the singing of a wood thrush. Catching sight of some interesting trees at Kataoka, I wrote:

While waiting
For the bird to sing
Shall I stand
In the grove at Kataoka
And feel the drops of dew?

Unlike the imperial new-born, the translations in this volume are swaddled in nearly impermeable layers of editorial matter: prefaces, appendices, groundplans and some murkily reproduced prints for the elucidation of the palace topography, running commentaries. The commentary on the Diary is interleaved, page by page, with the translation, which leads to some crowded left-hand pages and some totally blank. The commentary on the Poetic Memoirs is interspersed with the translation but given in smaller print. The poems themselves appear in double columns: on the right, the translation; on the left, what is presumably a rendering, in the Western alphabet, of the sound of the Japanese original. Apart, however, from the bar printed over some o’s, which I take it indicates that they are long o’s, there is no clue to the pronunciation, let alone the accentuation, of the sounds. Is nao, for example, a word of one syllable or of two? Unless, therefore, you know Japanese, in which case you don’t need it, the device seems lavish rather than informative.

Of the information that is given unambiguously, quite a lot seems designed chiefly to assure scholarly colleagues that their contributions have not been overlooked. Conspicuously, the editor lacks the eye of a Japanese poet: he confuses the wood with the trees or, to translate the poetic fallacy, confuses what could be safely stowed in tiny print at the back for the gratification of the scholars concerned with what a modern, Western reader actually needs to be told if he is to feel his way round these exotic literary conventions. I have read Genji in two different translations and I incline to think that Murasaki is a great novelist. She is certainly a highly remarkable one. It is a crying and philistine shame that no artist was called in and given the power ruthlessly to turn this publication into a real book.

I was reflecting how different was the response to novelists of the 11th-century Japanese royal house from that of our own dear Hanoverian-and-after monarchy when I was stopped in my unfair tracks by the memory that in fact something very like Murasaki’s experience did happen to Fanny Burney. She was swept, as Second Keeper of the Robes, into the train of Queen Charlotte, George III’s wife, when she too was in her thirties and famous as the author of two bestsellers, Cecilia and her rumbustious, read-on first novel, Evelina, which Oxford has now reissued as a World’s Classics paperback. The potential for psychological delicacy and intellectual irony of the genre that Fanny Burney virtually invented in Evelina, though she neglected to take it out of the corset of the epistolary form, through which her energetic plotting and her exuberant social observation burst most implausibly, was exploited not by herself but by Jane Austen, who accorded the pioneer generous credit in her great flight of ironic rhetoric: ‘Oh! it is only a novel ... It is only Cecilia or Camilla’ (both of which are by Fanny Burney) ‘ ... or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed ... ’ Surely the offer of a free quote from Jane Austen must soon entice some publisher to reissue Cecilia and Camilla?

Fanny Burney was not a great writer, but she was thoroughly a writer and an exceptionally vigorous one. If it did not occur to her to break the epistolary mould in Evelina, it was probably because she was herself in real life such a good and unpretentious letter-writer, interested in, and therefore interesting on, everything that came to her notice. Oxford has now pursued, with Volumes VIII, IX and X, its admirable enterprise of a complete hardback edition of her letters (together with some letters to her) and the historical and family memoirs she composed out of her superabundant literary energy. The editing is exemplary and, for what you get, the prices are shockingly low, which I hope indicates that the publishers mean to sell to individuals as well as libraries.

An individual who is constrained (or so conditioned to expect books to be cheap as to believe himself constrained) to limit himself to one volume would be wise to pick Volume VIII, where Fanny Burney, married to the royalist Frenchman Alexandre d’Arblay, vividly reports, at first from Paris and then from Brussels, those exciting and perilous Hundred Days of 1815 when Napoleon (or the ‘tiny Tiger’, as she and, the editors say, contemporary cartoonists often call him) burst out of exile and raised an army. She reports, via Princess Elizabeth, to the British royal family, using, lest the letters be intercepted, a code that would have delighted Murasaki since it consists of calling the personages of the royal family by such names as Magnolia and Honey Suckle. She notes that in France it is perfectly correct for a woman to receive a man caller in her bedroom – a social convention that, when practised in England by a visiting Frenchwoman, makes ripples in the plot of Evelina. She laments that the French translation of her latest book, The Wanderer, is, ‘I am told, ... really abominable’; Murasaki’s fear of misrepresentation by copyists has reduplicated in the modern world. She writes to her son, an undergraduate at Cambridge, who is in immediate danger from an outbreak of fever caused by a bad drain at Jesus College and in constant danger, his parents fear, of turning out a lout or a ne’er-do-well. (He got his own back later by becoming a clergyman.) Above all, she exchanges letters with her husband, who, having joined the army of Louis XVIII, was traipsing about the Belgian countryside wearing a plumed Greco-Roman helmet that made little boys laugh as he passed and who boldly and honourably, though foolhardily, since it looked at the time as though Napoleon was going to win, signed his name to the proclamation by which he sought to induce Napoleon’s soldiers to desert to the king.

Though seized with military fervour, d’Arblay spent the war safely at Trèves. It was Fanny who was in Brussels during the Waterloo campaign. Her letters have become a prime historical source for the tension beforehand (‘How awful is this pause! How, – in what manner will it terminate?’), the military build-up (‘The encreasing quantity of British troops in this Town just now is amazing’), the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, which she did not attend but of which she immediately obtained an eye-witness account, and the dreadful straggling back into Brussels of the wounded soldiers after the battle.

She writes to d’Arblay in a fluent macaronic: ‘ ... – with no time on the instant to endeavour to faire passer une lettre à Mme Deprez’. Even her bits in English sometimes take on a French construction: ‘The brave scotch Highlanders are proudly amongst the foremost. They all conduct themselves here in a manner the most exemplary.’ His excursions into English go barely beyond a ‘my dear Fanny’ and a rare ‘Ma santé est excellente mais, my spirits are not so.’ For the most part he writes to her wholly in French.

It was with a comparable linguistic chauvinism that Colette greeted a cat in the United States as, at last, someone who spoke French. Joanna Richardson maintains the myth of Colette’s sympathy with animals. It would be easier to swallow had Colette abandoned swallowing the corpses of killed animals. The whole blather about Colette’s ‘passion for nature’, to which Ms Richardson fully subscribes (‘Colette had a passion for life itself,’ she asserts, portentously giving the assertion a paragraph to itself), seems to me a misapprehension resulting from a general unwillingness to believe that writers are indeed writers. Colette was not particularly interested in vegetable-growing or cookery. She was interested in writing – and primarily, since she was one of the world’s most gifted narcissists, in her own writing. Her literary method, which went, with genius, partly against the grain of the French language and wholly against the grain of the fashions that have tired its muscles by hauling intellectual abstractions into every conceivable subject, was to express herself in the concrete terms of textures and smells. What passes for her ‘love of nature’ was a matter of supplying herself with the imagery she needed in order to write at all.

Ms Richardson has composed a commonplace biography couched largely in clichés (in the English sense of that word, though the book does contain several rather small reproductions of photographs): Colette ‘revelled in words’ and did something or other ‘with boundless energy’. There is also an instance of this year’s voguish grammatical howler: ‘Achille, whom gossip said was the son of ... ’ Colette’s major works get a summary apiece, with a literary judgment either commonplace or wrongheaded. The people Colette knew are accorded a one-line summary or description apiece at their first mention, with the exception of Francis Carco (the French novelist who was briefly one of Katherine Mansfield’s lovers), in whose case the card-index system has gone awry and who is mentioned several times before the text says who he was. There is one new piece of information, which forgivably rather distorts the proportions of the book since it is recounted in greater detail than the other facts. After her second marriage, Colette went to bed with one of her husband’s sons by his previous marriage. Having early found that no one can make a living simply by being a good writer, Colette became an expert self-publicist, for which she had a natural turn. A major item in her stock-in-trade was to put herself over as someone who knew, from experience, everything there was to know about sex. Since she disliked her brothers, she no doubt pounced on her stepson as her first real chance to experience incest.

Ms Richardson has a turn for silly statements, such as ‘Willy, who was moved to tears by Wagner’s operas, was ruthless in his treatment of his wife,’ which needs either elaboration, especially on the subject of the treatment of wives in Wagner’s operas, or, for preference, excision. She also has a tendency to act in her sole person as both the partners in one of those couples where each regularly spoils the other’s anecdotes. On the subject of Bel-Gazou de Jouvenel (Colette’s daughter), she quotes Renaud de Jouvenel (Colette’s other stepson and Bel-Gazou’s half-brother) as saying, in a letter to Ms Richardson: ‘She must have begun very early to have relations with girls or women, but ... the subject was tabu between us.’ Having made her point or having let Renaud de Jouvenel make it for her, she mars it by adding banally: ‘Like her mother, Bel-Gazou had lesbian tendencies.’

Should you be in danger of undergoing a quiz on Colette’s life-history, this biography would prime you with the main facts, though it is incorrect in implying that the post-war Secker and Warburg editions were the first translations of Colette to appear in Britain. It gives, however, no feel of Colette whatever. Robert Phelps makes a sound and lively job of his selection of her letters, which constitutes in effect an autobiography in outline. He includes a letter (or is it a poem? is her concreteness of imagery in fact more Japanese than English?) that might be by Murasaki. On the day in 1928 when she was promoted Officer of the Légion d’Honneur, Colette wrote to Louis Barthou: ‘I shall always have the pleasure of this memory: that on the morning of a ministerial crisis, Louis Barthou telephoned me to give me good news, that for a moment he left a thorny bush to offer me a little flower.’ Rearrange in five lines.