To Serve or Not To Serve

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.

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.

Happy New Year (….. & Happy 1st Blogiversary to me!)

NY2013 BWa

Happy New Year, everyone! I know this is a bit late for a new year greeting, but better late than never, right? I had intended to put up a New Year post in conjunction with the one year blogiversary for A Reader’s Footprints a week earlier, but was unfortunately knocked out by a bad bout of flu. Been struggling to regain my lost voice, while battling a nasty cough and a persistent fever at the same time. It’s only now that I am feeling much better, and finally able to put this post up.

So, here we are. A whole new year, full of possibilities and fresh promises lying all stretched out ahead. It’s been a year and a bit now, since I started this blog. It has been a good journey for me and I have enjoyed the experience as well as all the interaction carried out with every single one of you who has been kind enough to have dropped by for a visit in the past year. Thank you all, for having added in some way or other, to the pleasure and comfort that I find in keeping up this little blog here.

It is interesting to note that I had started the previous year with Something Fresh by P.G Wodehouse, and had ended the year aptly with All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West. Both the books brought me much reading pleasure. Although I did not manage to read (or rather, finish reading) many books in the past year, but what I did read, I had mostly liked. A few I had loved, and even fewer still, had me unimpressed. All in all, I would say it was a good reading year for me, just not in terms of quantity I guess.

I have enjoyed reading about all the reading plans and resolutions that many of you have made across the blogosphere, and though I have not come up with any lists or plans of my own this year, it is still exciting to think of all the possibilities that are waiting to be had.  I can only say that I will put in some serious effort in making a bigger dent in the stacks of TBR this year. My reading choices will be mainly based on whim but I might try to join in for a couple of reading events here and there, as the year trundles along.

Remember the ‘sea lion who lost the sea‘ story I posted in my very first post here, a year ago? Well, here’s what became of the sea lion a year later.

When the wind had ceased to blow, the sea lion had a dream. Now, as I told you before, there were other nights in which he had dreamed of the sea. But those were long ago and nearly forgotten. Even still, the ocean that filled his dreams this night was so beautiful and clear, so vast and deep, it was as if he were seeing it for the very first time. The sunlight glittered on its surface, and as he dived, the waters all around him shone like an emerald. If he swam quite deep, it turned to jade, cool and dark and mysterious.

But he was never frightened, not at all. For I must tell you that in all his dreams of the sea, he had never before found himself in the company of other sea lions. This night there were many round about him, diving and turning, spinning and twirling. They were playing.

Oh, how he hated to wake from that wonderful dream. The tears running down his face were the first wet thing he had felt in [a long time]. But he did not pause even to wipe them away, he did not pause in fact, for anything at all. He set his face to the east, and began to walk as best as a sea lion can.
‘Where are you going?’ asked the tortoise.
‘I am going to find the sea.’

John Eldredge, ‘Desire’

I think I have found the ‘sea’. Right here.

And all of you, my dear fellow ‘sea lions’, are what makes finding the sea such a worthwhile journey.


Something Fresh

‘How old are you?’                                                             ‘Twenty -six.’                                                                            ‘You are twenty-six and you call yourself a failure? I think that is a shameful thing to say.’                                                               ‘What would you call a man of twenty-six whose only means of making a living was the writing of Gridley Quayle stories? An empire builder?’                                                                                ‘How do you know it’s your only means of making a living? Why don’t you try something new?                                                               ‘Such as —‘                                                                         ‘How should I know? Anything that comes along. Good gracious, Mr Marson, here you are in the biggest city in the world, with chances of adventure simply shrieking to you on every side—-‘                           ‘I must be deaf. The only thing I have heard shrieking to me on every side has been Mrs Bell – for the week’s rent.’

P.G. Wodehouse, Something Fresh

And that is how it came to be that Ashe Marson finds himself answering to an ad in the Wanted column of the ‘Morning Post’ for a ” Young Man of good appearance, who is poor and reckless, to undertake a delicate and dangerous enterprise…“, which promises a thousand pounds as its reward. The ‘delicate and dangerous’ task turns out to be that he has to help his American millionaire employer recover (by way of stealing) a prized scarab ( I wonder how many of you knew that scarabs are actually Egyptian hieroglyphs in the form of beetles?! I certainly did not) from Lord Emsworth’s personal museum at Blandings Castle. To do so, Marson has to pose as a valet to the American millionaire, whose daughter has just been engaged to marry Lord Emsworth’s son, and has been invited for a stay at Blandings Castle.

And this is where the fun really starts, as we follow Marson’s little adventure into the world of life Below Stairs at Blandings Castle, subjected to the watchful eyes of Mr Beach, the butler. Having just recently finished watching Season 2 of Downton Abbey, I find the domestic scenes being played out vividly in my mind and I couldn’t help but keep picturing Mr Beach looking like Mr Carson from Downton. The first interview Marson has with Mr Beach produced what to me is the funniest scene in the book.

‘You have been with Mr Peters some time, Mr Marson?’            ‘Eh? Oh! Oh no, only since last Wednesday.’                              ‘Indeed! Might I inquire whom you assisted before that?’                 The question placed him in an awkward position. If he lied, and credited himself with a lengthy experience as a valet, he risked exposing himself. If he told the truth, and confessed that this was his maiden effort in the capacity of gentleman’s gentleman, what would the butler think? There were objections to each course, but to tell the truth was the easier of the two, so he told it.

‘Your first situation? said Mr Beach. ‘Indeed!’                                 ‘I was, er – doing something else before I met Mr Peters.’ said Ashe. Mr Beach was too well bred to be inquisitive, but his eyebrows were not.

‘Ah!’ he said.                                                                            ‘?’ cried his eyebrows. ‘? ? ?’                                                     Ashe ignored the eyebrows.

 Hahah, that really had me laughing out loud. 🙂  Helping Marson manoeuvre his way around those eyebrows Below Stairs is Joan Valentine, the girl who had earlier shaken Marson out of his complacent living with her inspiring speech. The girl also happens to be vying for the same scarab and thousand pounds, and has made her way into Blandings castle by posing as a lady’s maid. What happens thereafter, I leave it to you to find out for yourself. If you have the chance to grab hold of a copy of this book, please do. You have to read it for yourself in order to appreciate the full wit and humour of P.G. Wodehouse.

Something Fresh turned out to be more than just a very entertaining & delightful book for me. Reading it, I could identify with Ashe Marson’s feelings of failure and inadequacy. Of being complacent and contented, to a certain extent, with life’s lot (though I don’t mean contentment is a bad thing). It’s just that starting the year with this book does in a way inspire a sense of desiring “something fresh” and wanting something more, out of my lot. What exactly that “something” is, I do not know. But hey, it’s a brand new year after all, anything is possible, is it not? 😉