Pardon me for this somewhat melodramatic title. This is the name of a 1834 play by Alfred de Musset, originally called On Ne Badine Pas Avec l’Amour.
The play impressed me greatly when I saw it as a university student. It was both the plot and the powerful performance of the cast. I remember watching motionless and with eyes wide open. I thought about it for a long time afterwards. If it is ever staged in your city, go see it, I think you won’t regret it.
So this play, rightly revered as a masterpiece, was a revelation.
But have you ever read something considered a masterpiece, only to feel disappointed by its lack of meaning for you?
Over the past couple of weeks I did just that.
I read two novels of about 100 pages each, by acclaimed Bulgarian novelist Emilian Stanev (1907-1979) – the Peach Thief (Крадецът на праскови) and The Queen of Tarnovo (Търновската царица), and was astounded by the complete mismatch between the triteness that I found and the glimpses of truth I was expecting to perceive.
The Queen of Tarnovo, written in 1974 when Stanev was 67, was actually much better, so I will focus on The Peach Thief for now.
I am usually careful when I criticise because it is easy to do that in the comfort of anonymity. Unlike Emilian Stanev, I am not a respected author, no schools and streets have been named after me and my home has not been turned into a museum of my life (yet :)). So maybe I do not have the right to be critical of achievements I will possibly never match. Still, as a reader, I am entitled to an opinion, so I choose to share it here.
The Peach Thief, written in 1948, deals with forbidden love and is set in Veliko Tarnovo, which is also Emilian Stanev’s hometown. The action takes place during World War I.
The novel has a woman as the main character, but I am afraid I thought she was described superficially and one-dimensionally, as if from the standpoint of an observer who does not really understand women. A writer providing excellent insight into the psychology of his female characters is Somerset Maugham and, I am sorry to say, Emilian Stanev is no match.
The book, however, offers superb descriptions of nature and life in early 20th-century Veliko Tarnovo. You can tell Stanev actually lived there at the time of the events he writes about. You can also tell he is not lacking an eye for detail and an ability to effectively convey his impressions to the reader. This made the discrepancy between the quality of his writing on the surroundings and on the psychology of his characters, gape even wider.
In The Peach Thief, a colonel’s wife, approaching middle age and childless, bored stiff with her marriage, lives a secluded life in the countryside amid disease epidemics and the war-time privations faced by the civilian population. She meets a Serbian prisoner of war, whom hunger had made sneak into her garden to steal peaches. They start meeting regularly and the woman offers him food and clothing. Naturally enough, they fall in love and soon their secret meetings become more than just talk amid the fruit trees and the grapevine.
The woman blossoms and her happiness and glow, although she tries to conceal them behind her daily routine, are soon noticed by her husband. However, preoccupied with the progress of the war, he remains totally oblivious to the reasons behind this sudden bloom of his usually reserved wife. In the meantime, the woman and the war prisoner discuss plans for a life together after the war is over.
Food thefts from local people’s gardens by war prisoners grow increasingly common and the colonel authorizes his orderly to shoot at any stranger trespassing his property. This is how one night the Serbian war prisoner gets killed while sneaking to the usual tryst with the wife of the colonel. The woman hears the shot, rushes out in her nightgown, finds the dead man, goes crazy with grief and a few hours later shoots herself too. The colonel is fired from the army and reduced to a life of loneliness and poverty.
There. When I finished the book, I felt I would have slapped Emilian Stanev in the face, had he been standing anywhere near me.
- First – the woman in the novel is called Elizabeth, or Елисавета (Elisaveta) in Bulgarian. Although still young, Stanev chooses to describe her as “barren” (безплодна), in an obvious allusion to the Biblical figure of Elizabeth, the elderly and childless wife of Zachariah and subsequently mother, by God’s mercy, of John the Baptist. Stanev even suggests that Elisaveta’s being childless has somehow contributed to her mental state that led to her falling in love with the war prisoner.
This – let the woman have children and she needs nothing else – is one comfortable cliché, but it is a lie. Many women would tell you that having children is a blessing, but it does not fill in the void felt by the perceived lack of other things. Children may give one a reason to get up in the morning, that’s true, but they are not consolation for every pain and longing that one may feel.
Also – considering the connotations of the word, how trite is it for the Serbian to steal peaches?! Why didn’t he steal apples or pears? Or watermelons or pumpkins, for that matter? All these are available in the month of August (when the action is set) in Bulgaria.
I resented the disguised crudeness of much of the language I found throughout the book. It was a language willing to pass as rich and cultured, but was full of banality and stereotypes.
- Second – the reader is not offered any insight into either Elisaveta’s thoughts and internal battle, or into those of the Serbian guy. In fact, he is only present as a receiver of food charity and stolen caresses, he is not portrayed any further than that at all.
The reader is told of Elisaveta’s blossoming beauty and resolute glance, because of what has been taking place in the grapevine, but really nothing is revealed of her internal turmoil regarding this situation, which is obviously an extraordinary and unexpected one for her.
For example, was not this fire with the Serbian been stimulated by all the secrecy? Was this something real or just a trap they had fallen into, because of the force of circumstances? Was she justified in dreaming of leaving her life behind for this man, whom she had probably met about a dozen times? Was the Serbian guy serious in his words, or was he just responding to the situation, sincerely as of the moment, but with no actual intention or courage to shape this story any further?
How about Elisaveta’s opinion of herself? Did she feel guilty? A liar? A hypocrite? A loose woman? Or a brave and a happy woman? Did she feel she did not have the right to do this behind her husband’s back, but did she not in the same time defy this concern, arguing within herself that she was entitled to happiness before death comes?
How could Emilian Stanev not have known of all these questions? How could he not have known that readers would not only have liked to read about somebody doing something “forbidden”, in this way vicariously living it too, but would have also looked for answers and a solution? Not some absolute truth, not at all, but at least an attempt at a solution.
- Third – the Serbian gets killed and Elisaveta shoots herself…So, is this the proposed way out of a situation like this?!
How about clenching your teeth, straightening your back and going on living, seeking joy and consolation in other things? That would surely require no little courage. How about not repenting for this affair and cherishing it and grieving over the way it has ended, in the years to come? That would be quite a natural thing to do. How about stashing what happened deep into your memory and deliberately choosing to not go there, except very rarely, so as not to awaken ghosts you have fought hard to lay to rest? Natural enough as well.
How about the husband then – is he to forgive for the sake of love/family/appearances, or cling to his wounded pride and file for divorce which at that time meant disgrace?
There are very important questions here – what is marriage for, what is love, what is loyalty and virtue, what is repentance and forgiveness, things like that.
Giving in to feelings like those of Elisaveta and the Serbian guy is a recipe for getting pangs of guilt and a neurosis; not giving in is a recipe for frustration and obsessive thoughts. So what to do?
Did Emilian Stanev offer his take on any of these issues? He didn’t. I read on, waiting to see what a man, supposedly wiser than me, with more experience and erudition, would have to say on this subject I suppose he had picked up voluntarily, but, amazingly enough, he had absolutely nothing to say.
I just want to open a bracket here and point out that nowhere in the book did Stanev suggest that the relationship between Elisaveta and the Serbian war prisoner stemmed from their unfulfilled desires for physical intimacy.
There is a story by Somerset Maugham called Virtue, where a rather similar situation is described, and Maugham suggests quite openly that the man’s motive was a physical one, while the woman was foolish enough to have believed in the durability of the romantic ties that have emerged between them.
I must say that before the 20th century men and women did not have many chances to meet, so much of the Western civilisation’s highest lyrical achievements have probably been inspired by a few encounters only, that have obviously been enough for feelings to develop, last and be considered serious.
So this modern-day rationalisation of something not being serious by default because of the limited number of encounters that have led to its formation, just may not be how the human soul works.
This novel was written in 1948, after communism had come to power and during the darkest years of the personality cult and the mass exterminations of members of the bourgeois intelligentsia. So probably the story ending in death was Stanev’s only possible option.
The new power did not tolerate sentimental ambiguousness of any kind, so any hint at thoughts similar to those I’ve listed above, would have probably sent Stanev’s work to the garbage, amid accuses that he was displaying a reactionary bourgeois attitude. That’s how book publishing worked at the time.
I have always been suspicious of Bulgarian books, both fiction and non-, published during Communism, exactly because of this gliding over the surface on pretenses of depth, which leaves you wondering whether it comes from author inability or from censorship precautions. There are many examples of writers having actually been forced to insert propaganda-style content into their work so that it can pass censor scrutiny.
Today, if I were a literary editor and someone had sent me such a novel for publishing, I would have immediately sent it back for rework.
PS. The forbidden love ends in death for someone in the De Musset play I mentioned in the beginning, in The Peach Thief, in Maugham’s story Virtue and also in a classical Turkish 1899 masterpiece on forbidden love, called Ask-i-Memnu by Halit Ziya Usakligil.
Hints at a tragic ending of the impossible love between a rising 19th-century tradesman and the daughter of an impoverished aristocrat, are also made in Polish masterpiece The Doll, which I have reviewed here.
So, is this just trite or a norm of some kind? Or does all this tragedy represent some sort of a warning or spiritual catharsis for the audience? I’ve never thought of that.
This is the first stanza of a 14th-century sonnet by Francesco Petrarca I had to study in school when I was about 15…At an age where 30 is the new 20, what does a girl of 15 have to say about that, I wonder…
S’amor non è, che dunque è quel ch’io sento?
Ma s’egli è amor, perdio, che cosa et quale?
Se bona, onde l’effecto aspro mortale?
Se ria, onde sí dolce ogni tormento?
My translation now. I am no professional poetry translator, so you’ll excuse me if I preserve the meaning, but change the rhyme pattern to abab from the clumsier abba of the original. 🙂
If not love, what is this I am feeling?
And if love, oh God, what a thing is it?
If good, why am I from anguish reeling?
If bad, why is all its torment sweet?
Or perhaps like this:
If not love, what is this I am feeling?
And if love, oh God, what its essence is?
If good, why do I suffer mortal stings?
If bad, why do I find its bite appealing?
I sometimes feel, much like Wokulski in The Doll, that I should do away with all these thoughts and get down to something more down-to-earth and manageable.
But if everyone did that, there would be no literature in the world at all…