The Princess of Cleves by Madame de Lafayette

The Princess of Cleves by Madame de Lafayette is a 350-year-old piece of historical fiction. Does that qualify as a sub-genre of sorts?  Historical historical fiction?

Written in the 1670’s by a member of the French court, The Princess of Cleves describes the romance between its title character and a man who is not her husband, set in the court of Henri II, some 100 years earlier.  In her introduction, Nancy Mitford states that it is historically accurate based on what was known at the time, but can one ever fully trust a Mitford sister?

Nancy Mitford’s own life is apparent in both Madame de Lafayette and her creation the Princess of  Cleves.  Both authors were part of a glittering social and literary set that did not include their husbands.  Both wrote of love and lived lives rumored to be full of affairs.  The Princess of Cleves is a woman both might pretend to admire to her face, though they had little in common with her.

The Princess of Cleves marries a man she does not love, though he passionately loves her.  Soon after her marriage she meets a man whom she falls in love with, as he does with her, though neither speak to each other, nor inform the other of their shared love until late in the novel.  The Princess remains true to her wedding vow, chaste up to the end of her own life.  Even after her husband dies, she refuses her lover’s advances, preferring life in a convent where she can remain true to her husband repenting  the fact that she did not love him and betrayed his love in spirit if not in deed.

It’s hard to imagine a 20th century woman like Nancy Mitford, or an 17th century woman like Madame de Lafayette would ever consider doing such a thing.

So why did one write about it? The other feel compelled to translate it into English?

Perhaps someone more familiar with their biographies has a more definitive answer.  I can only guess, and guessing would reveal more about me than it would about either woman.  My Yale professor was fond of saying that while we read the tales, they also are reading us.  But, I’ll take that risk.

The Princess of Cleves is not about physical passion; the love it portrays is a spiritual one.  But even this spiritual passion is one that must be resisted in order to stay true to one’s self.  If one is devoted to a higher cause or believes in the primacy of one’s word, then love must sometimes be sacrificed, even spiritual love.  Keeping her vow is more important to the Princess of Cleves than even her own happiness.   In our time, as it certainly was in Ms. Mitford’s and probably in Madame de Lafayette’s, sacrificing happiness for the sake of an ideal would be look upon as ludicrous.  There are no children to consider in the novel, nor are there parents to take care of or disappoint.  The Princess of Cleves clings to her ideal, simply because it is her ideal.

I’m not saying it’s something I would do, just that it’s something I admire.  Maybe Ms. Mitford and Madame de Cleves did as well.

And I know that by saying so, I’m letting The Princess of Cleves read me when I should be  reading it instead.  I fall into that trap again and again.


This review first rand in late 2010 on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B.  To be honest, all I remember of this book now is what I read in the review above.  It’s been interesting migrating all of my old reviews to this new site, discovering that I’ve forgotten so much of what I’ve read.  I remember quite a bit, too, by the way, but I’ve forgotten much more.

Posted in Book Review, Classic, European Literature, Fiction, French Literature, Novel, Translation | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Santa Monica Review vs. The Pinch: A Tournament of Short Stories II Post

imageLast spring I attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference in Los Angeles where I was very impressed by the quantity and the quality of small literary journals in the exhibit hall.  There’s far more of them out there than you probably suspect.

I had nearly no money to spend, no cash that is, and very few of the small presses are actually big enough to accept plastic, so I didn’t get very many. But, I did buy a copy of The Pinch which is put out by the University of Memphis  and The Santa Monica Review which is put out by Santa Monica College.  I’ve a friend who worked for The Pinch while in graduate school and someone from The Santa Monica Review was giving away free copies as fast as people would take them.  So I took one.

For this round I read the first two pieces in each: Silver State by Ashley Farmer and Contact by Ryan Ridge in The Santa Monica Review and Homecoming by Justin Carroll and My Murderer’s Futon by Sarah Viren from The Pinch.

All four pieces were good.  The Santa Monica Review pieces were good but not great.  I liked Ms. Farmer’s a bit more than I did Mr. Ridges’s but Contact really was not my cup of tea, so I should disqualify myself a bit.  Since I’m the only judge for this little tournament, that’s not really an option.  I was struck that both stories featured abusive police officers.  Has this just become an accepted trope now?  Are we at the point where decent behavior from the police is just not believable in fiction anymore?

Ms. Farmer’s story is about a young woman whose relationship has just ended. She is driving east from Los Angeles towards the mountains where she hopes to join a group of women who are prospecting for silver in an abandoned mining town when she is pulled over by a police officer.  At first she things go along well, but when the young officer realizes she is going to join the all women’s mining camp, things turn a bit ugly.

Contact is about a young man who runs into an old acquaintance. The two spend the bulk of the story doing drugs and talking about stuff people who are doing drugs talk about.  It was well written, but I’m over this story.  Keep your drug induced ranting to yourself and stay off my lawn!!!  Here the bad police officer was just an off-the-cuff mention about a time on of the two young men was picked up by the cops who did not take kindly to his behavior to say the least.

I found the first piece in The Pinch to be more of the young men talking under the influence type stuff for the most part. Homecoming rises above this genre due to its setting, a small Montana town about to be overcome by an enormous wild-fire.  The people in town hang on as long as they can, have their annual Homecoming parade though ashes are falling all around them and the football team is wearing oxygen masks so they’ll still be in shape for the big game.

I can’t say how people would behave in Montana, but we’re no strangers to wild-fires here in California.  While I’m sure there are people who wait as long as they can before evacuating, no one would stay in town to be in a parade not with ashes falling all around them.  We’ve seen what can happen and we know what to do.  Get out of Dodge before the traffic gets really bad and while you can still get a cheap motel room.

But that aside, the story is well written, just too many young men doing things they shouldn’t be doing. I have to say, after reading two stories in a row like this I began to wonder why no one ever writes about the kids in high school who are working hard to get into the best colleges.  I know they’re out there. I know they read stories so there must be plenty of them who write them. Why do the bad students get so much press?

What put The Pinch into the win column for me was Sarah Viren’s non-fiction piece My Murderer’s Futon.  Through an odd fluke of events, Ms. Viren found herself living in a Galveston, Texas apartment with famed killer and cross-dresser Robert Durst’s old furniture.  While Robert Durst was eventually acquitted on self-defense grounds, most people who followed the case believe he was guilty of murder.  If only they could have found his victim’s head.  It’s kind of a long story.

When Ms. Viren moved to Galveston to take a job as a crime reporter for the local paper she rented an apartment from Robert Durst’s old landlord.  She didn’t rent his apartment, but she did need furniture and the old landlord happened to have all of Durst’s old furniture in a nearby garage.  Would she mind sleeping on a murderer’s futon?  No, she would not. Nor his television, his kitchen table and chairs, his VCR, his lamp, etc.

The mix of reportage about the Durst case and life with the murderer’s furniture made for amusing reading. It was creepy in an entertaining way.  Like a story just a little too dark for This American Life. I liked it a lot.

The Pinch advances to the next round.


Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, California, Fiction, Non-fiction, TBR Dare | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson

imageLike the others, the question was rhetorical, abstract, anything but pragmatic; as vain to ask as his own clever question had been vain.  It was far too late to pose such a problem with any reasonable hope for an answer–or, an answer forthcoming, any reasonable hope that it would be worth listening to or prove anything at all.  It had long since ceased to matter Why.  You were a drunk; that’s all there was to it. You drank; period.  And once you took a drink, once you got under way, what difference did it make Why? There were so many dozen reasons that didn’t count at all; none that did. Maybe you drank because you were unhappy, or too happy, or too hot, or too cold; or you didn’t like the Partisan Review, or you loved The Partisan Review. It was as groundless as that. To hell with causes–absent father, fraternity shock, too much mother, too much money, or the dozen other reasons you fell back on to justify yourself. They counted for nothing in the face of the one fact: you drank and it was killing you. Why? Because alcohol was something you couldn’t handle, it had you licked. Why? Because you had reached the point where one drink was too many and a hundred not enough.

I’m starting my review of Charles Jackson’s wonderful novel The Lost Weekend with a long quote, something you shouldn’t really do in a review, because I know most people who read reviews only read the first part.  I think this is some fine writing, something I found all over the place in The Lost Weekend.


Late in the book, the main character buys several bottles of booze to hide in his brothers apartment. He hangs one outside of his bedroom window tied to a string.

You may know the excellent 1945 movie starring Ray Milland, but Mr. Jackson’s novel has not seen a wide readership since his subsequent novels failed to sell as well as The Lost Weekend did.

The Lost Weekend details a few days in the life on a serious alcoholic named Don Birnam.  Don’s family has some money, enough that he can live off of his younger brother who is trying to help him.  Don is a binge drinker. He is able to convince his brother to leave him at home for the weekend which makes it possible for him to go on a bender in a big way.  Really big.

Don spends the entire weekend drinking or trying to find money so he can drink more. He is at the point where there is little he won’t do to get another drink. He steals money from the maid, from several local businesses. He even tries to steal a woman’s handbag while out drinking at a nearby bar.  There’s a wonderful scene where he takes his portable typewriter to a pawn shop only to find all the pawn shops in New York City are closed for Yom Kippur.  He walks all the way to 125th street, lugging the typewriter, lost in a drunken reverie, finally arriving without even knowing what he has done.

The writing in this sections is amazing, but too much for me to quote.  I’d rank it alongside the trunk road section of Kipling’s Kim as one of the best travel scenes ever written.

I was struck by how gay, nearly gay-friendly, The Lost Weekend was.  Written in 1946, it’s contains several very early glimpses at gay life.  Don tells how he was kicked out of his college fraternity after less than a year because he had developed a crush on an older boy which he was unable to hide.  He mentions an ex-girl-friend who complained that he only slept with her when he was drunk.  This puts the main character well within the gay spectrum like Brick in Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

There is a long scene with a male nurse called Bim after Don wakes up to find himself in the hospital with a near severe head injury he cannot recall getting.  Bim tells Don that he will see him again sometime which Don thinks means Bim suspects he is homosexual but the reader can also read as seeing Don as the full-bore drunk he has become.  Bim is clearly gay, in any case.

In a later scene, Don goes into a subway restroom to count the money he has found in his coat pocket only to find two strange men wearing overcoats standing quietly near the stalls, watching him.  He suspects they are some sort of policeman but many readers would recognize this as a cruising scene.

From the intense and believable drunk scenes, I knew Mr. Jackson had to be writing from experience.  I try to avoid the biographical fallacy as much as possible, but there was no way he knew this experience in this much detail without having lived it.  Wikipedia backs me up here.  It also states that something very similar happened to Mr. Jackson in his fraternity days.   He was married throughout his adult life but Wikipedia does not say whether or not he was gay. There is a recent biography about him that looks very interesting…

Charles Jackson’s second novel The Fall of Valor is about a married man who falls in love with another man.  It did not get the critical raves The Lost Weekend did nor did it sell as well.  It has since fallen out of print.

But, there is a copy at the San Francisco Public Library…….

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I Blame Dennis Hopper by Illeana Douglas

imageDo you have to be a fan of hers to enjoy Illeana Douglas’s memoir I Blame Dennis Hopper?

That’s the essential question with any celebrity memoir, I guess.  Does it have anything to offer people who are not fans of the author? Or to people who don’t know the author’s work at all?

I can only speak as a fan, or as something of a fan.  Turns out, after reading her memoir, I wasn’t aware of half the things she’s done.  As a result, I’m currently enjoying her hit web series Easy to Assemble for the first time.

Season one is on YouTube and it’s lots of fun

Ileana Douglas is an American actress, the one-time darling of independent cinema back when independent cinema was something worth talking about. These days I think everyone has moved on to cable television.

Her big hit, as far as I’m concerned, was  a movie called Grace of My Heart about a woman trying to make it as a singer/songwriter.  It’s terrific. At least, I thought so many years ago when I say it in an actual theatre.  Something I rarely have cause to do lately.

But back to the memoir.

I Blame Dennis Hopper is divided into neat chapters, you don’t need to read them all or to read them in order.  Each is devoted to one topic related to movies, either ones Ileana Douglas was in or to ones that profoundly affected her life.


Illeana Douglas once asked her grandfather, actor Melvyn Douglas, for advice. He told her that an actor’s life requires staying in a lot of hotels, some good, some not so good. But no matter what hotel you are in, you’ll always be able to get a good club sandwich. So when in doubt, order the club sandwich. I have found this to be true in my own life, too.

Like Easy Rider.

When Ms. Douglas’s parents saw Easy Rider, it had a profound effect on her father, who essentially took the standard 1960’s advice and tuned in, turned on and dropped out.  He set up a commune of sorts in their back yard, living there with a series of young women and men who came and went. Eventually he left his family for the open road, motorcycle and all. This left Ms. Douglas’s mother to provide for the children who grew up poor as a result.  Later in life, Ms. Douglas got a chance to meet Dennis Hopper and to work with Peter Fonda the two main stars of Easy Rider.  No mention of Jack Nicholson for some reason.

One of my favorite stories was how Ms. Douglas got into a summer theatre group for disadvantaged high-schoolers.  She practiced her audition song for weeks by singing Maybe This Time over and over again, following Liza Minnelli on the soundtrack album.  At the audition she found herself unable to sing with piano accompaniement since she had never sung with a piano in her life.  In exasperation the accompianist asked her what key she was singing in.  Not knowing what he was talking about at all, frustrated that she was not going to get into the program she nearly screamed back, “The key of Liza!”

This broke everyone in the auditorium up, of course.  Afterwards, they essentially coached her through the audition and she was accepted into the program.

While she never really got a firm place in the mainstream, Ms. Douglas worked with or met just about everyone, or enough people to fill a memoir with very entertaining stories and entertain she does.  I Blame Dennis Hopper is one of the most charming memoirs I’ve read.  There’s no great angst here, no Hollywood scandal.  Just a very hard-working woman doing all she can to get and keep a career as an actor.

Judging from this memoir, Ms. Douglas had a great time doing it, too.

And I had a great time reading it.


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Mother Tongues by Theodora Ziolkowski

imageTwo young men arrive at the home of a peasant woman.  We hear you know many stories, they say. Will you tell them to us for the book we are writing.

What follows is a wonderful collection of four stories, each perfect for the Brothers Grimm.  Stories left out of their collected tales you might say.

Two are set in places that seem very like the world of the Brothers Grimm–two are set in modern times. Each one works in a subtle ways, with just the lightest touch of magic, just barely enough of the fantastic to make them fairy tales.  Fairy tales for people who don’t care much for fairy tales.

In the opening story, a woman begins a tale for her audience of two young men while at her window a flock of geese begin to appear.  Watching, listening. Are they the geese in the story she is telling?


This is my artwork.

In “Apples” Ms. Ziolkowski present her take on the Snow White tale.  Hers is a story about a woman desperate to keep her beauty at any cost, even the lives of her two step daughters.

When I was a little girl and always trying to hide my eye patch, Stepmother used to tell me I was lucky I had at least one good eye. One is enough to get by, she’d explain. Or, Beauty for little girls isn’t everything, you know. Beauty doesn’t count quite yet. Just wait until you’re older.  Just wait until you’d do anything to get it back.

I thought that was very good. I think it’s a good snapshot of Ms. Ziolkowski’s stories, too. Something a bit familiar, something a bit strange. Snow White has only one eye.  Her stepmother motivated by her own fading beauty instead of jealousy.

The final story “Foam” has this wonderful opening:

When we were living, we moved in with a man and his niece.

“When we were living”!  You’ve got my attention.


This is Lea Greenwood’s artwork. She did the wonderful cover and the rest of the illustrations in Mother Tongues.

I purchased Mother Tongues through subscription. It’s published by The Cupboard, a small press that operates out of Florida.  They publish a small chapbook four times a year featuring the work of a single author.  By small I mean small enough to fit in your pocket. Each addition is only $5.00; a one year subscription is $20.00.  I’m not getting anything free from The Cupboard, but I am looking forward to the next edition.

Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, Fantasy, Fiction, Short Story | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments