Louis Couperus - His insight into the tragedy of European colonialism made Couperus a great writer. And his sympathy for the hybrid, the impure and the ambiguous gave him a peculiarly modern voice
Louis Couperus, Eline Vere, Trans. by Ina Rilke, Archipelago Books, 2010. [1889.]
Louis Couperus was catapulted to prominence in 1889 with Eline Vere, a psychological masterpiece inspired by Flaubert and Tolstoy. Eline Vere is a young heiress: dreamy, impulsive, and subject to bleak moods. Though beloved among her large coterie of friends and relations, there are whispers that she is an eccentric: she has been known to wander alone in the park as well indulge in long, lazy philosophical conversations with her vagabond cousin. When she accepts the marriage proposal of a family friend, she is thrust into a life that looks beyond the confines of The Hague, and her overpowering, ever-fluctuating desires grow increasingly blurred and desperate. Only Couperus — as much a member of the elite socialite circle of fin-de-siècle The Hague as he was a virulent critic of its oppressive confines — could have filled this “Novel of The Hague” with so many superbly rendered and vividly imagined characters from a milieu now long forgotten. Award-winning translator Ina Rilke’s new translation of this Madame Bovary of The Netherlands will reintroduce to the English-speaking world the greatest Dutch novelist of his generation.
Superb. . . . Couperus handles his many characters with masterly ease and keeps his prose smooth, light, and flowing: Ina Rilke’s translation cannot be praised highly enough. . . . With Eline Vere the estimable Archipelago Books continues to make available in English some of the most important works of European literature.— Michael Dirda
[A] masterpiece. . . . The Hague’s greatest writer, turn-of-the-century Louis Couperus . . . captured the city in a famous novel, Eline Vere. . . . For its roomy, chatty descriptions of life among the moneyed classes, it is a Buddenbrooks avant la lettre; for its restless heroine, trapped by social obligations, it’s a Dutch Madame Bovary. . . in Ina Rilke’s smart new translation, it anticipates the questions that would become so important for women in the decades to come: no longer content in a purely domestic world, what were they to do with themselves?— Ben Moser
Couperus is the Dutch Zola/Flaubert/Tolstoy, but pretty much no one in America reads him; this is a truly classic novel, one that was first published in 1889; probably the only “Novel of the Hague” published last year.
The best introduction you can get to Couperus and Eline Vere is the bit from the Leonard Lopate show attached below and featuring Ina Rilke and Paul Binding:
(Kind of funny that right off the bat, Rilke talks about how Eline Vere isn’t really Couperus’s best work.)
Another great entryway to Couperus—one of the Netherlands great authors—is Paul Binding’s very informative and interesting afterword. Here’s a bit:
Louis Couperus was only twenty-six when Eline Vere came out, and had previously published only unsatisfactory and derivative poems (in 1883 and 1884). Though it is a literary artefact of precocious sophistication and accomplishment, the novel is also palpably the creation of a young man whose years were a great advantage to him in its composition. For Couperus is still very much of the milieu he is re-creating, aware though he is of its limitations and faults, and he clearly was intimately familiar, as a member himself of youthful Hague society, of the very pleasures, expectations and hopes he ascribes to his large cast of characters, almost all of them his contemporaries. Their gossip and banter, their flirtations, their little tiffs and misunderstandings and reconciliations, their plans for and doubts about the nature of their future adult lives convince us (and never more so than in Ina Rilke’s spirited and linguistically sensitive English) because they are done essentially from the inside. A young man like Etienne van Erlevoort, lazy and industrious, facetious and affectionate by turns, springs to life off the pages—on which he performs no absolutely essential dramatic act—as though a relation of the author’s own, slyly observed over many years, were being presented to us. [. . .]And a bit about the book itself:
Almost halfway through Eline Vere we find its eponymous heroine in a state of conscious happiness. Eline, whose life has hitherto centered round the entertainments of high society in The Hague, is staying at De Horze in Gelderland, the country property of the family into which she has agreed to marry. The more she sees of her betrothed, Otto van Erlevoort, the more she appreciates his kindly, virtuous character. Herself highly strung and only too frequently dissatisfied, she has found deep contentment in surrendering to the slow rhythms of the rural summer. These have enabled her to get on with members of the large Van Erlevoort family so well that they are now obviously fond of her—even Otto’s sister Frederique, who has never much cared for her. Eline is quite aware that she has significantly changed:
“During moments of solitary reflection on her new selfhood, tears welled up in her eyes in gratitude for all the goodness that she had received, and her only wish was that time would not fly, but stand still instead, so that the present would last for ever. Beyond that she desired nothing, and a sense of infinite rest and blissful, blue tranquility emanated from her being.”
Yet the God to whom she prays for this stasis does not answer her prayer, for time by its very nature cannot stand still. And moving and even sympathetic though we may find Eline’s thoughts here, we can also detect in them signs of the pernicious weakness that will destroy her. Her hopes are unrealistic, and fear plays too great a part in them; indeed, they amount to a desperate desire to have subtracted from existence anything demanding or painful. They are also self-centered; in this respect Eline’s “new selfhood” differs little, if at all, from her former one. Does her fiance have his rightful part in these wishes of hers for the future to be cancelled?Another great rediscovery from Archipelago . . . - Chad W. Post http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=3168
Ever heard of Louis Couperus? Me neither. But it turns out he’s THE naturalist writer of 19th-century Holland — their answer to Flaubert, perhaps, or Tolstoy. Which makes Eline Vere the Dutch version of Madame Bovary or possibly Anna Karenina. The problem with those nutty heroines is that they can be pretty annoying to the reader, and in this novel we spend a great deal of time in Eline’s head. Since she’s inclined to be high-strung and narcisisstic, it gets wearing. On the other hand, since Couperus was twenty-six (and a guy) when he wrote this, it’s a pretty impressive imaginative feat.
The setting is The Hague, the time 1889, and part of the interest for me was my eternal fascination with the details of prosperous late-19th-century life: the plush, the gaslights, the hangings, the tulle ball gowns. Couperus doesn’t stint on these descriptions but he also makes clear the extent to which the comfortable upholstery of this life is protective but also rigid. I think it was Walter Benjamin who pointed out the 19th-century fascination with padded cases for the objects they held precious, and that image came frequently to mind.
So, Eline. She is the beautiful talented orphan daughter of an eccentric unsuccessful painter. She lives with her bossy sister Betsy in physical comfort and great respectability. But her position as a pretty, cultured, marriageable young lady is not quite satisfying to her. Our first hint of trouble is her excessive focus on what other people are thinking about her. Hint number two is her overheated crush on an opera singer — she not only entertains romantic fantasies about him but even collects an album full of photographs, which she is then put to the trouble of burning when her illusions about him are dashed.
Big trouble comes, though, when she gets engaged to the honest, good-hearted Otto. She is delighted at first to surrender to his even temper and sunny outlook, but she begins to entertain doubts about him when her rakish, neurasthenic, cynical cousin Vincent more or less calls her back to the Dark Side. The slippery slope for an upper-crust girl apparently looked the same in The Hague as it did in Edith Wharton’s Old New York: sketchy friends, a suspicious cough, the habit of wearing only black dresses, little drops measured from a dark glass bottle… What makes Eline Vere different is that, just as Couperus spent considerable time on Eline’s affectations, he also invests energy in her absolute madness. And he’s darn convincing. The scene when she considers and discards various suicide methods is hair-raising. And even though Couperus goes to the trouble of tying a few pretty marital knots in the relationships of some of the (many) secondary characters, that won’t be what you remember when you close the book. - carolwallace.wordpress.com/2010/08/31/louis-couperus-eline-vere/
I had never heard of this novel before a friend recommended it to me, and that is a crime, because it deserves to be one of the great classics of the Realist tradition. Seriously, I'd rank it right up there with Tolstoy and Eliot - it's that good. Ok, it's not Anna Karenina or Middlemarch, but it definitely stands up to Daniel Deronda and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. More than anything, actually, it reminded me of Flaubert, especially in the skillful use of indirect discourse. And apparently Couperus wrote it when he was 26! It's a tightly crafted, marvelous drawing room novel, with gorgeous prose (I read the new translation, by Ina Rilke) and really insightful depictions of human psychology.
One of the pleasures of the book is how the characters mirror each other in these very complex ways, so you have these delicate similarities and contrasts that are wonderfully subtle. It's the best kind of Realism, in my mind - one that manages to evoke all of human nature in this intricate tapestry of a specific cast of characters. People are constantly misreading or misunderstanding each other, and are mostly pretty miserable. It's de-lightful. You have to enjoy torrid romance and handwringing and descriptions like "Her wardrobe, too, was the object of long and earnest meditation, involving the effects and harmonies of the cold sheen of satin, the warmer, changeable shades of silk plush, the froth of tulle and gauze, and the sheerness of mousseline and lace,"* but like I said, the real joy of the book is in the psychological insights. Come for the tulle, stay for the personalities!
I will definitely be reading more Couperus. Incidentally, perhaps worth mentioning that this was my first time reading a book - that I paid for - on my iPad. I'd read some stuff on iPhone before, but all free downloads of old classics, and mostly only when I was working a slow shift at a bakery and not allowed to have a book in front of me, but able to get away with a seemingly innocuous phone. This was my first proper, sit-down-and-read-an-ebook experience. I have to say - it's pretty nice. The Kindle app includes a pretty handy highlighting and note-taking feature, which I begrudgingly admit might even be superior to my usual pencil underlining, particularly given that it's searchable. It turns out that amazon has several other Couperus books available in electronic form (especially key, because the Bilkent library has nothing but the copy of Eline Vere that I ordered two months ago which - of course - arrived today).
*Re-reading those lines, I realize that the pleasure I take in them is purely literary. They don't really conjure up an image so much as a kind of sensation, a vague impression of fabrics that I'm not even terribly familiar with, but have learned to love from novels like this one.
This story of a tragic female misfit ranks with similar portraits by Flaubert, Tolstoy and Ibsen. It is a subtle psychological novel set against a dazzling panorama of Hague society, where the life of a group of leisured families, with its succession of balls, dinners, entertainments and excursions acts as a foil to the heroine’s increasing isolation.
The author introduces us, sensitively and subtly, to a gallery of men who impact on her life in various ways. That gallery includes her father, the failed artist, the opera singer Fabrice, by whom she is briefly dazzled, her well-meaning fiancé Otto, her fatalistic cousin Vincent and the energetic, optimistic American Lawrence St Clare. Sadly, none is able to offer her the support and sustenance she needs.
A very popular and widely read author in the Netherlands, Louis Couperus won the admiration of readers and writers in Britain and America: Oscar Wilde complimented him on his handling of sexuality in Footsteps of Fate, D.H. Lawrence admired Of Old People and the Things that Pass, while Katherine Mansfield praised The Books of the Small Souls.
Sadly, his international popularity did not survive the First World War, which confined him within the borders of the neutral Netherlands and prevented him from capitalizing on his reputation. However, enough of his output remains available to show what a compelling read he can be. To this day, Couperus is known for narrative flair, plotting, perceptive characterization and vivid dialogue, Eline Vere being a prime example.
- Like Dickens, Couperus was a famed reader of his own work and the dandy in him liked to orchestrate every aspect of the event, insisting on having the onstage flowers replaced during the interval, and even changing his tie and socks to reflect a shift in mood.
- Though he did not publicize the fact, Couperus’s colonial family, which included more than one governor general of the Dutch East Indies, also included several Eurasian relations. This may help explain the perceptiveness with which he writes about mixed-race characters in The Hidden Force.
- Shortly before his death in 1923, Couperus sold the film rights to The Hidden Force to an American company but the picture was never made. Film director Paul Verhoeven has announced his intention to film Couperus’ novel. - http://www.letterenfonds.nl/en/book/870/eline-vere
His insight into the tragedy of European colonialism made Couperus a great writer. And his sympathy for the hybrid, the impure and the ambiguous gave him a peculiarly modern voice. It is extraordinary that this Dutch dandy, writing in the flowery language of fin-de-siècle decadence, should still sound so fresh. - Ian Buruma
When I started reading this novel, I had big hopes because the book jacket compared it to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Couperus was compared to the great masters of the 19th century. I approached the novel with hope but with respect. I didn’t know if it would be an easy read or those books you love, but require great care.
To my surprise, Eline Vere is a novel that reads itself. I found myself reading and reading, I was captivated by Eline and her sister Betsy. Their problems seemed so silly and obvious, yet so dramatic and impossible to resolve in their eyes. Eline is definitely a character that will stick with him, like Madame Bovary did many years ago.
The plot is explained nicely in the following video. SPOILER ALERT!
But behind the love story and Eline’s depression and anxiety, Couperus is compared to Tolstoy and Zola because the story is much more than just about love. What Couperus does in this novel is a very clear and thorough criticism of the high society of The Hague. With every page and every social gathering, Couperus is giving us a time-machine that allows us to observe and judge for ourselves what life was like. - Karoly G Molina https://blogs.transparent.com/dutch/book-review-eline-vere-by-couperus/