Monday, July 17, 2017

A little exercise in the archaeology of literature: "The Petrel" by Marcelle Tinayre

There was a time, a century ago or more, when reading novels was the normal thing: no TV, no Internet, no radio;  a lot of entertainment was done by means of novels and a lot of ideas were passed in that way, too. Of that period, we remember a small number of novels that we define as masterpieces, but there was much more being written and being read. Looking at this "minor" production is a way to perform a sort of an archaeological task.

So, this book by Marcelle Tinayre (1901) appeared in my hands by mere chance and I read it over a summer afternoon: 93 pages (in the Italian translation). As I said, a little exercise in literary archeology for a book that, for us, looks light, even ethereal. Not the kind of book that a modern writer would write but - I can say - one that a modern reader can read.

The story is very simple: the protagonist is a woman, Martha, living in a real place, Château-d'Oléron, a small island on the South-Western coast of France. A simple woman for a simple story. Married to a staunch but not very exciting local doctor, she falls in love with a young Parisian intellectual who visits the island. Their love story produces a child and much repentance on the part of the protagonist who, eventually, stops seeing her lover and doesn't tell anything to her husband. It also includes dramatic descriptions of the local landscape. That's it, more or less.

So, a light story for a light novel, but worth some comments. This is not the work of an amateur. It is the work of a professional writer who completely masters the trade. Marcelle Tinayre has something to say and she knows how to say it. Again, for our modern tastes, her style would appear, well, let's use the term "florid". But we are probably obsessed with a rule that we invented and that states "don't tell, show," as if every narrative text were to be a script for a sitcom. Tinayre doesn't care. She shows a lot but she also tells a lot. The narrative viewpoint is normally focused on the protagonist, Martha, but the author is omniscient and she doesn't shy from telling us what the other characters think while they act in the novel. The result is, as I said, a bit florid but perfectly readable. Tinayre knows how not to exaggerate, she knows how to maintain the narrative flow, she knows how not to lose the reader's interest.

Then, the novel is not just entertaining, it carries a message. Narrative, indeed, is a mirror of the times when it is written and "The Petrel" is no exception to the rule. Tinayre, as many writers of the time, were exploring a concept that had taken a particular importance in their time: that of the infidelity of married women. Of course, that had been the subject of much literature from Sumerian times. But, most of the times, the infidel woman had been the target of scorn and punishment. Even when treated sympathetically, typically the infidel woman had to die at the end of the story (a good example is Dante's "Paolo and Francesca").

Then, there came Flaubert and his "Madame Bovary," a true literary revolution. True, Flaubert's heroine still dies a horrible death, possibly as punishment for her sins. But, clearly, Emma Bovary is not evil, even though she has defects. She is a woman of her times and what she does deserves attention and understanding. It is clear that "The Petrel" is deeply influenced by "Madame Bovary", there are similarities in the plot: both novels tell of a young woman married to a country doctor. And the style of "The Petrel" resonates of Flaubert's, even though less perfect. Finally,  Flaubert's novel is cited in Tinayre's novel, when we are told that Martha's good husband doesn't believe in the existence of women who could be defined with the term "Bovary."

Tynaire's novel came some 50 years after Flaubert's one and it couldn't attain the same notoriety of the precursor of the genre. Yet, as Borges says, human literature is just a single book and every author adds a new chapter to it. In this ongoing effort, Tinayre's chapter is not the least beautiful, rich, and interesting chapter of this big book. And it is an ongoing story of women gaining a space in society that they didn't have before. If long ago a cheating woman was at best possessed by the devil, with the series of stories that started with Flaubert, a lot of things changed. They are still changing and the book keeps being written. And, sometimes, we take a look at a chapter written long ago and forgotten, and we can rediscover it.

Below: Marcelle Tinayre (1870-1948)

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