18 November 2011

Eline Vere, by Louis Couperus

I had never heard of this novel before a friend recommended it to me, and that is a crime, because it deserves to be one of the great classics of the Realist tradition. Seriously, I'd rank it right up there with Tolstoy and Eliot - it's that good. Ok, it's not Anna Karenina or Middlemarch, but it definitely stands up to Daniel Deronda and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. More than anything, actually, it reminded me of Flaubert, especially in the skillful use of indirect discourse. And apparently Couperus wrote it when he was 26! It's a tightly crafted, marvelous drawing room novel, with gorgeous prose (I read the new translation, by Ina Rilke) and really insightful depictions of human psychology.

One of the pleasures of the book is how the characters mirror each other in these very complex ways, so you have these delicate similarities and contrasts that are wonderfully subtle. It's the best kind of Realism, in my mind - one that manages to evoke all of human nature in this intricate tapestry of a specific cast of characters. People are constantly misreading or misunderstanding each other, and are mostly pretty miserable. It's de-lightful. You have to enjoy torrid romance and handwringing and descriptions like "Her wardrobe, too, was the object of long and earnest meditation, involving the effects and harmonies of the cold sheen of satin, the warmer, changeable shades of silk plush, the froth of tulle and gauze, and the sheerness of mousseline and lace,"* but like I said, the real joy of the book is in the psychological insights. Come for the tulle, stay for the personalities!

I will definitely be reading more Couperus. Incidentally, perhaps worth mentioning that this was my first time reading a book - that I paid for - on my iPad. I'd read some stuff on iPhone before, but all free downloads of old classics, and mostly only when I was working a slow shift at a bakery and not allowed to have a book in front of me, but able to get away with a seemingly innocuous phone. This was my first proper, sit-down-and-read-an-ebook experience. I have to say - it's pretty nice. The Kindle app includes a pretty handy highlighting and note-taking feature, which I begrudgingly admit might even be superior to my usual pencil underlining, particularly given that it's searchable. It turns out that amazon has several other Couperus books available in electronic form (especially key, because the Bilkent library has nothing but the copy of Eline Vere that I ordered two months ago which - of course - arrived today).

*Re-reading those lines, I realize that the pleasure I take in them is purely literary. They don't really conjure up an image so much as a kind of sensation, a vague impression of fabrics that I'm not even terribly familiar with, but have learned to love from novels like this one.


Patrick Murtha said...

Couperus's novel of the Dutrch in Indonesia, "The Hidden Force," is a terrific book. Look for the 1985 University of Massachusetts Press edition, that's the one you want. The editor, E.M. Beekman, improved an older translation by Alexander Teixera de Mattos, and the result reads very well. There are some other fine books about Dutch colonialism in the East Indies - Edward Douwes Dekker's classic "Max Havelaar," Maria Dermout's poetic "The Ten Thousand Things" - but the Couperus is the best I've read. As you indicate, he is a quite spectacularly gifted novelist, and that was understood internationally during his lifetime; very many of his books were translated into English. I can't wait to read more of them.

Patrick Murtha said...

I found my note on "The Hidden Force" from my old (now shuttered) blog:

A marvelous book that is certain to please any discriminating novel reader. Couperus (1863-1923) was the most famous Dutch writer of his generation, extensively translated into English, and has lately been undergoing an understandable, well-deserved revival. Critics have called him a "genius," and The Hidden Force, with its brilliant plotting and characterization and its profound understanding of the psychology of colonizer and colonized, certainly reads like the work of a genius. I strongly recommend the modern edition from the University of Massachusetts Press; the generally good Alexander Teixera de Mattos translation has been touched up, corrected, and de-bowdlerized by E.M. Beekman, who also contributes excellent introductory materials and end notes.

culture_vulture said...

Thanks for your comments! Especially the note on translation - very helpful. Amazon has the Alexander Teixera de Mattos translations available as free downloads, but it sounds like it might be worth holding out for the newer version. Thanks too, for the book recommendations, I'll definitely look those up. Sorry to hear that your own blog is no longer running!

Patrick Murtha said...

I would definitely hold out for the newer translation; Beekman's Introduction is also very helpful in understanding the book. A copy can be scored easily and cheaply through Amazon, Alibris, AbeBooks, or Bookfinder.

My blog, Patrick Murtha's Diary, was a general culture blog like yours, covering literature, movies, music, and what-have-you. I had my ups and downs with it over several years, including various changes of format (I'm not sure I ever nailed the right one). I shut the blog down during one of those fits of disaffection from the Web that I assume many of us suffer. I can't say that I've regretted the decision.

But I'm always happy to discover a fine blog from someone who is keeping at it, and I'm enchanted by yours. I will definitely dig into the archives!