HOUSEHOLD TURMOIL AND ITS RELATIONSHIP TO HISTORICAL TURMOIL: “COUP DE GRACE” BY YOURCENAR

January 31, 2011 at 12:43 am | Posted in Books, Film, France, Germany, History, Literary, Philosophy, World-system | Leave a comment

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Household Turmoil Interacts with Historical Turmoil

Several historically attune movies show or hint at a connection between psychosexual murkiness at the level of the household and societal turmoil such as war and revolution.

The personal and the historical are intertwined by psychology.

This link between the micro-world and the macro-world is adumbrated in these movies:

1.   “Murmur of the Heart” (Louis Malle)

2.    “Wild reeds” (Andre Techine)

3.    “Coup de Grace” (Volker Schloendorff)

The first links provincial France and the looming French defeat in Dien Ben Phu and Vietnam circa 1954 with a hypersexualized situation at the level of one family.

Wild Reeds (French: Les Roseaux sauvages) is a 1994 French drama film directed by André Téchiné, about the sensitive passage in the adulthood and in awakening of sexuality by four youths at the end of the Algerian War. The film is set in south-west France in 1962.

Psychosexual murkiness is part of a “system” connecting the macro-world with the micro-world.

Coup de grâce

Marguerite Yourcenar 1903–1987

Set in the Baltic provinces in the aftermath of World War I, Coup de Grace tells the story of an intimacy that grows between three young people hemmed in by civil war: Erick, a Prussian fighting with the White Russians against the Bolsheviks; Conrad, his best friend from childhood; and Sophie, whose unrequited love for Conrad becomes an unbearable burden.

Biographical Information

Yourcenar was born into two very old, wealthy, and influential families from Belgium and France. Her mother, a native of Brussels, died ten days after giving birth. Consequently, Yourcenar was raised and educated by her father, Michel de Crayencour, a Frenchman, in Mont-Noir, Lille, and Paris. As her teacher, mentor, and sole intellectual companion, Yourcenar’s father encouraged her to study the classics, to begin writing poetry, and to read French, Latin, Greek, and English literature. She wrote her first poems when she was fourteen and her first volume, Le jardin des chimères, was privately published in 1921; she later dismissed this work as possessing only “the virtue of childish simplicity.” For this book, she and her father anagrammatized “Crayencour” to devise the pen name Yourcenar, which she adopted as her legal name in 1947. For most of the 1920s she and her father traveled through Europe enjoying a life devoted to literary, aesthetic, and intellectual pursuits. In 1929, after her father’s death and the loss of much of her inherited fortune in the stock market crash of that year, Yourcenar published her first novel, Alexis (Alexis); this was her first work to be accepted by a commercial publisher and was her only major work that her father read. In the 1930s, she published prolifically in a variety of genres, including a critical volume on the Greek poet Pindar simply entitled Pindare (1932); a unique book of prose, poetry, and aphorisms examining various aspects of love, Feux (1938; Fires); two collections of short fiction, La mort conduit l’attelage (1934) and Nouvelles orientales (1938; Oriental Tales); and a book-length essay on dreams, Les songes et les sorts (1938). She also translated Virginia Woolf’s 1931 novel The Waves into French in 1937 and two years later published her second major novel, Le coup de grâce (1939; Coup de Grâce). Able to support herself with her writing in these years, she traveled widely in Italy, Germany, and Greece; in 1937 she briefly visited the United States, where she lectured at several colleges and studied the life of the Roman emperor Hadrian (A.D. 76-138) at Yale University. Travel restrictions imposed throughout Europe during World War II forced Yourcenar back to the United States, where she worked briefly as a journalist and commercial translator before becoming a part-time instructor at Sarah Lawrence College in 1942. Her literary output was slight until 1948, when trunks containing her collected notes on Hadrian arrived from France. Inspired by these notes, Yourcenar began composing what many critics consider her greatest work, Mémoires d’Hadrien (1951; Memoirs of Hadrian). The 1968 novel L’oeuvre au noir (The Abyss), is widely considered her second masterpiece.

In 1980 she became the first woman elected to the Académie Française in the three-century history of the institution whose members include writers, politicians, scholars, and scientists.

Yourcenar remained an active traveler and writer for the rest of her life, nearly completing the final volume, Quoi? L’éternite (1990), of her autobiographical trilogy known as Le labyrinthe du monde before her death at the age of 84.

Major Works

Although Yourcenar produced important works in a variety of genres, her reputation rests primarily on her novels. Her first attempt in the genre, Alexis, is structured as a récit, a classical form of the French short story designed to recount, ostensibly as an aid to the examination of conscience, a significant deed or event in a concise, rapid narrative. The novel proceeds as a letter written by the title character, a talented musician finally avowing his homosexuality, to his wife, Monique, as an apologia for deserting her and their new baby, and to express his regret at having lived misleadingly with her for so long. Anticipating Memoirs of Hadrian with its epistolary form, the novel also inaugurates many of Yourcenar’s signature themes, namely the artist’s struggle to maintain and express his sensibilities in a hostile environment; male homosexuality; love and pleasure; and the emergence of self-identity and its relation to guilt.

Coup de Grâce, which also uses the first-person récit form, examines the lives of three characters caught in romantic and political turmoil. Set in the late 1920s during the civil wars touched off by the Russian Revolution in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the novel is “remembered” by Eric von Lhommond, an aristocratic adventurer and romantic mercenary whose purely class-based, nonideological objections to Communism provide his pretext for participating in Europe’s military conflicts. He recounts his relationships with Conrad, a young man whom he loved, and Conrad’s idealistic sister Sophie, who fell in love with Eric but was rejected and finally executed by him. Coup de Grâce further develops Yourcenar’s notion of love as fate and examines the abuse of power in its physical, emotional, and political forms. Critics note that the novel also presents, in the character of Eric, the prototype for Yourcenar’s hallmark larger-than-life protagonist, clearly prefiguring the Hadrian of Memoirs of Hadrian and Zeno of The Abyss.

As Ann M. Begley has pointed out, Yourcenar’s fascination with Hadrian began when she read Gustave Flaubert’s description of the emperor’s era: “Just when the gods had ceased to be and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.”

Memoirs of Hadrian is an epistolary novel consisting of the aging emperor Hadrian’s letter to his seventeen-year-old adoptive grandson and heir, Marcus Aurelius, the purpose of which is to pass on the lessons learned in an eventful, varied life. With her stated intention of conveying the psychology of the age, Yourcenar largely avoids plot and melodrama, focusing instead on anecdotal depictions of Hadrian’s career and his meditations on politics, war, art, religion, destiny, and love between and among the sexes. Yourcenar depicts Hadrian as the quintessential warrior-poet, an agnostic who has succeeded in forging a personal moral code with the support of neither ancient myth nor Christian faith. Like Hadrian, Zeno in The Abyss is a faithless man, but one whose personal understanding is achieved through lifelong study and service to the sick. Set during the sixteenth century, the novel details the divergent paths taken by Henri-Maximilian Ligre, scion of a wealthy and powerful family who seeks adventure and fame as a soldier, and his bastard cousin Zeno, a studious, metaphysically-oriented man who despises his cousin’s life and devotes himself to the investigation of philosophy, alchemy, medicine, and mysticism. Portrayed in a Faustian light, Zeno’s quest for an authentic life and truth is seen as heresy by the leaders of his age. The Abyss is a further examination of Yourcenar’s interests in the implications of fate, emergent self-identity, and the relation of magic and philosophy.

Critical Reception

Before the publication of Memoirs of Hadrian, Yourcenar’s works received little attention outside a relatively small group of intellectual readers. Le jardin des chimères, for example, was ignored by most reviewers, but attracted the enthusiastic attention of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who invited Yourcenar to live in India.

Excerpted from Hans-Bernhard Moeller and George Lellis’

Volker Schlöndorff’s Cinema: Adaptation, Politics, and theMovie

Appropriate.

Despite its modest claims, Volker Schlöndorff’s twelfth film, Coup de Grâce (Der Fangschuss, 1976), can be considered a jewel among his creations. Adapted from Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel by the same title, this film brings the 1920s heritage to life, thanks to quilted jackets, frozen landscapes, impersonal firing squads, uniformed soldiers folk dancing at war-ravaged estates: images, sound, and texture evocative of revolutionary Russia. In addition, actress Valeska Gert, 1920s exponent of avant-garde pantomime, expressionist dance, and women’s liberation, graces the screen in one of her final performances, as Aunt Praskovia.

It marks, at the same time, Schlöndorff’s return to and recapitulation of his own cinematic methods from Young Törless (1966) and The Sudden Wealth of Poor People of Kombach (1971). It presents Margarethe von Trotta, here also Schlöndorff’s screenwriter, in some of her most convincing scenes as an actress. It carries on the portrayal of rebel women in the line of A Free Woman (1972) and The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975), though in more spartan visual style. In all its simplicity, this is a key work by a pivotal literary filmmaker of Young and New German cinemas.

Coup de Grâce places the reader or viewer in conditions of near-civil war that raged in the Baltic provinces near Riga in the early twenties. Radical Bolsheviks, Estonian and Latvian nationalists, German junkers, and White Russians, as well as fortune hunters and volunteer militias, attack each other. One reactionary stronghold is the castle Kratovice, ancestral home of Konrad von Reval (Rüdiger Kirschstein), who returns as an officer and finds his sister Sophie (Margarethe von Trotta). She falls in love with his comrade Erich von Lhomond (Matthias Habich), also a childhood friend, from whose masculine point of view Yourcenar’s novel is written. She politically sympathizes with village Bolsheviks, but when Erich does not return her love, she moves to the communist camp.

Schlöndorff has, in fact, reconfigured the point of view within the narrative situation: as the material changes from book form to the film medium, Sophie turns into Erich’s co-protagonist.

This change proves useful to Schlöndorff’s personal set of themes, since instead of an officer and his memories, a woman moves to the forefront along with the conflicts of her emotions, her epoch, and her environment.

In the adaptation process, Schlöndorff has set up an unusual narrative structure. On one hand, he is taking a book that features a male point of view and evokes the genre of the war film––a genre usually characterized by a male point of view. On the other hand, the shift away from a first-person male narrator represents here a subverting of the war film’s usual masculine perspective.

Schlöndorff’s film develops its love-story narrative in parallel to its war-film narrative. In Coup de Grâce, Sophie’s intertwined expectations for meaningful relationships, personal happiness, and sexual fulfillment are at odds with the largely male-created universe of militarism. Schlöndorff creates a world of intimacy without sex, of sex without intimacy, and of both without happiness. In terms of film genre, the movie asks whether the traditionally configured love story can survive if the woman seeks to be the man’s equal and strives to propagate values counter to repressive masculine ones. Sophie is open, while Erich clings to orthodox formalities and appearances. She is self-disclosing, Erich evasive and even duplicitous. We are never sure whether his feelings for the contessa are sexual, fraternal, or controllingly paternalistic. This ambiguity throws audience identification onto the side of Sophie.

One particular leitmotif of the film’s indirect narrative technique draws attention to political aspects. It cinematically establishes a close link between the contessa and a captured rebel. The latter is not present in Yourcenar’s novel and thus becomes a cinema-specific addition that multiplies meanings through visual echoes and parallels. Both characters are interrogated by Erich in a way that may suggest Schlöndorff’s German point of view. Both are executed according to martial laws. Understood in a broader sense, the film actually offers two “coups de grâce.” In both cases, the business of the execution is cold and efficient; the executioners have little time. Nor does the camera allow the viewer much chance to sympathize, because both “coups de grâce” are photographed from a distance. Both times, executioners shamelessly leave corpses behind, like piles of trash.

Such touches caused a number of critics to comment on the more reserved, artistically quieter approach of Coup de Grâce. In New German Film, Timothy Corrigan positions the work as inferior to films that are more directly subversive. But Corrigan’s analysis misses many of the ways in which Schlöndorff provokes activated viewing and audience reflection. One can argue that Schlöndorff assembles an array of alienating strategies that operate subtly and scrape against the grain of a superficially realist narrative. This movie’s narrative contains many gaps and ellipses, as well as many places where, with characterizations developed only through externalized behavior, motivation is implicit or ambiguous; all of these require an alert viewer to fill in what is missing.

In her introduction to the Coup de Grâce novel, Marguerite Yourcenar insists that her intentions were not to side with any political group or party but rather to present a “study in character and emotion.” Schlöndorff achieves something different. Although it is clear that his political sympathies are not anti-Bolshevik, he never establishes whether his drama should be interpreted personally or politically and so challenges the viewer to resolve the tension between the two.

It is clear that conflicts between the sexes, women’s themes, rebellion, and politics, as well as German history, offer points of contact between Schlöndorff’s film and Yourcenar’s novel.

Coup de Grâce

Volker Schlondorff’s Cinema: Adaptation, Politics, and theMovieAppropriate,” by Hans-Bernhard Moeller and George Lellis.

Coup de grâce

Volker Schlöndorff

1976

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