i-will-not-serve service with a smile

I have just been reading simultaneously two books that couldn’t have been further apart in terms of the mood, tone, style of writing and subject matter. Thus, Eveline Mahyere’s dark and desperate I Will Not Serve somehow ended up being just nicely balanced out with the sunlit, cheery writing of Wodehouse’s Service With A Smile. (And I just realised how ironic it is to see both the titles are put together.)

I have been on the lookout for a copy of the Mahyere ever since it was brought to my attention following my reading of Antonia White’s Frost In May a couple of years back. Maybe it was because both books had used the convent as the backdrop for the stories to be told, and that had somehow led me from one to the other. It was probably also because Antonia White happened to be the one who did the translation for this VMC edition. But while the protagonist in White’s novel takes us on a coming-of-age journey of growth and self discovery, Mahyere’s portrayal of the rebellious and impetuous seventeen year old Sylvie Ceyvenole on the other hand, is one that leads us along in witnessing her journey towards self destruction as a result of her unrequited love for Julienne Blessner, her twenty five year old teacher from the convent who is in preparation to becoming a nun.

The impact from the prose is made all the more poignant when one learns of the fact that this being Mahyere’s only novel, is considered to be somewhat autobiographical and was written just shortly before she took her own life at the age of thirty two. It is an intense piece of narration, taking on the forms of letters and diary entries in giving us a glimpse of just how destructive youthful passions (or obsessions) can sometimes be.

“… You are perhaps 25, I am only 17, so you claim the right to put up a wall of respectability between us. But I am an outrage to respectability. […] I hope, too, that you don’t hate me for writing to you as I’m doing . In any case, I’d promised myself to tell you that I loved you as soon as I’d left the convent. But I’ve got to admit to myself that what I’ve just told you is bound to shock you; my imaginary blasphemies will doubtless do so far more than the reality of the ‘crime’. [….] There is something that you have never told me , something that I have been able to read in your look when, twenty times in a single lesson, our eyes used to meet over the little plaster statues. It is because of that look that I have left the convent, and the thought of leaving you there behind me is literally intolerable to me. If you do not come to me, I shall carry you off by force with a silken ladder. But you are going to write aren’t you, and say you prefer me to the little plaster St. Thereses?
I love you.
Sylvie.

Julienne Blessner did not answer this letter.

A few excerpts from Sylvie’s diary.

“13th May.
When she left me, Julienne asked me , in a friendly voice, to telephone her. That was two days ago but I cannot bring myself to do it. Not that I have stopped loving her; I love her ruthlessly, hopelessly, desperately, but if it weren’t for the six bars of the slow movement, I should say I meant nothing whatever to her. If she had insulted me, I could have dreamed of fighting and conquering her one day. But she smiled at me as charmingly as possible, almost without seeing me, as if I had been Mother Marguerite-Marie.”

“7th July.
I cannot believe it and yet I know it is true. Through my own fault, because I didn’t dare make her step down from her pedestal, I have lost Julienne. I’ve driven her into this novitiate, I’ve dedicated her to the convent. Yet I have never loved her more. I keep repeating St. Augustine’s cry: ‘Oh, the madness of not knowing how to love men as men!’ and it acquires a meaning for me that the author of the Confessions certainly did not intend…. [….] I cannot imagine the days going on and on without her, and yet I know that it cannot be otherwise. Would my heart burn so fiercely if it were not devoured by the impossible? Where did I get this passion for the impossible that has always made me neglect the possible? Julienne has broken with me yet she could not have imprisoned me more completely. Now I am locked up in the absolute of this forbidden love. I shall never be cured of it. I am caught in a spell, bewitched. I want to die, to die of love, to exhaust all the oxygen in my lungs , to burn like a torch. She is everything to me. Never shall I be able to go on living without seeing her, without writing to her. I shall extinguish myself like the fire when one smothers it.”

I really love some of the many keen observations that Mahyere manages to so perceptively capture throughout her writing.

“What could a passer-by do – come to her aid, take her to the hospital? No charitable soul could have understood the absence of Julienne. People pity a man who falls from a scaffolding, a woman who loses her husband. Because they suffer? No, only because they have the official right to suffer.”

“There is no greater happiness than the anticipation of happiness. For then happiness and hope melt into one and sweep your heart away. Such suspense is at once blissful and dramatic. Even though one is not yet entitled to experience it, the joy is imagined so intensely that it submerges all reality.”

“Silence can sometimes be so heavy that it has all the weight of an accusation, an admission, an overwhelming piece of evidence.”

Perhaps one can have a better understanding of the driving force behind that which ultimately drove Sylvie to the extremes, looking at these closing lines to one of her letters to Julienne.

I love you.
(And, contrary to what you suggest, this love is not in the least murky but as bright and blinding as a great fire.)

It is truly a pity to know that Mahyere, like Sylvie, had ultimately chosen to be extinguished together with that fire.

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11 thoughts on “To Serve or Not To Serve

  1. I read “I Will Not Serve” about 18 months ago and have to say it packed an emotional punch (particulary when you take into account the \utobiographical elements). Very thoughtful review.

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  2. This does sound like a very intense story! Julienne has to be aware of Sylvie’s feelings, but does she take them seriously? Or since the story is told through Sylvie’s words, do you only see Julienne through her eyes?

    The Wodehouse must have been quite a contrast 🙂

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    1. Julienne is aware of the intensity of Sylvie’s feelings, and she does her best to steer Sylvie back to a path where both of them can continue walking together, as friends. A path where Julienne can keep a clear conscience, and with the hope of convincing Sylvie to not give up on her life (ie: studies/ future) after her expulsion from the convent. We do get glimpses into Julienne’s heart and mind in a few of her letters and conversations with Sylvie. Here’s one of them: “Sylvie, I do not know how to answer you. You express in words, in phrases, things that perhaps do not exist and that embarrass me like delirious ravings. My own life is simple: I do my job as well as I can, I make an effort to live as uprightly as I can. I had become greatly attached to you, it is true, but I saw nothing murky in my affection for you. Why have you had to distort everything so that now I am frightened of thinking of you and yet never stop thinking of you?”

      Yes, the Wodehouse was definitely quite the contrast! 😉

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  3. Now I am going to have to look for the Mahyere–I very recently just finished Frost in May, too and am now reading The Lost Traveller. Both excellent. The Mahyere sounds rather bleak. Changing the subject…any exciting plans for your upcoming birthday? 😉

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    1. I really need to get on with The Lost Traveller too, I think. I had gotten a few more of Antonia White’s books right after being smitten with Frost in May, couple of years back, and yet somehow (as is always the case) have never gotten around to reading anymore of them till now! :p
      The Mahyere is bleak, but not without its dark humour here and there. As for the upcoming birthday, it’s always a rather low key, non-event kinda thing, I’m afraid. And what thrills might you have in store for yourself over there, may I ask? 😉

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  4. A very incisive review; makes one want to just grab a copy and read it without further delay. I look forward to a follow-up post which would hopefully cover your take on the Wodehouse work as well!

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