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A- : strong character-portrait, as well as of that place and those times
See our review for fuller assessment.
[* review of the earlier translation]
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
As the title suggests, Eline Vere -- twenty-three when the novel opens -- is the central figure of this story, but Eline Vere, subtitled A Novel of The Hague, is also very much a (large-)chamber piece, richly populated by those in Eline's circles.
It is not a novel of The Hague as whole, but certainly portrays a specific slice of late nineteenth century Haagse life in close detail.
Indeed, Couperus makes his intentions clear in the opening chapter, which features many of the characters participating in and viewing a showing of various tableaux vivants -- a term that applies equally well to the novel itself, a work presented as a sequence of closely described set and often mannered scenes.
Significantly, too, while many of the characters are introduced in this first chapter, Eline remains off-stage: she neither participates nor observes, having begged off attending, claiming not to feel up to it: the first mention of her is to note her absence: "Such a shame Eline is not here".
Couperus does not constantly push her to the forefront, or limit his focus to the experiences directly around her -- but even when she is out of the picture, she casts some shadows, large or small or flickering.
(Neatly bookending the novel, Eline also does not appear in the novel's final, almost postscript chapter, which jumps a year ahead of the close of the action from the previous chapter.)
Betsy sensed the contrast between her own energetic briskness, arising from her robust health, and her sister's languishing eleganceThey rub each other in the wrong ways, with temperamental Betsy, set in her ways and her expectations (including of due deference to her as lady of the house), having a tendency to lash out. The two repeatedly clash -- often in minor ways, but eventually forcefully enough that Eline rushes out into a stormy night and refuses to make peace or return to that van Raat household. (Amusingly enough, after the all the dust of the dust-up has finally settled -- more than a year and half later -- and Eline settles into a Hague household again she chooses to let herself be taken in by old Madame van Raat, Henk's mother.)
Eline is considered charming and well-liked in her circles, but remains at something of a distance from everyone (as is already suggested by her absence from the novel's opening scene). Despite family and friends, she isn't intimately close to anyone -- having neither any friend nor, in Betsy, a sister to whom she could really pour her heart out, for example. It's unsurprising to hear, well into the novel, her (then-)future in-law family observing:
'Well, I don't know her very well yet. I do think it very nice of her to adapt so entirely top our ways and habits, so that we can dispense with ceremony -- for which I wouldn't have time in any case; I'm far too busy. I appreciate that very much. But you know me, it takes me a while to form an opinion about people.'Eline is an elusive character -- likely due in no small part to the fact that she is uncertain of her own desires (much less ambitions). As she herself diagnoses: "there's a part of me that is underdeveloped, incomplete. I'm always racked with doubt, never sure about anything". Her isolation and frustration is most clearly documented when she is first introduced, when she lets loose to Henk (who, though sympathetic, is decidedly not equipped to even begin to understand what troubles her):
The urge to pour her heart out was too strong to resist. What was she living for ? What use could she be to anyone ? She wandered about the room, wringing her hands and lamenting without pause. She didn't care if she died within the hour. she didn't care about anything at all, it was just that her existence was so futile, so useless, without anything she could wholeheartedly devote herself to, and it was all becoming too much to bear.It's an extreme reaction, however; while often impetuous, Eline long generally shows more self-control and does not succumb -- at least not this openly -- to such self-pitying outbursts (at least until she begins twisting in her ultimate downward spiral). But the fundamental issues she complains of remain, and define her and her actions; she remains unsettled -- literally, variously, so (including in not finding any sort of settled living arrangements after she leaves Henk and Betsy's house). So also, much later, Madame van Raat can observe closer at hand:
The previous evening the old lady had been struck by how restless Eline seemed, picking up objects and putting them down again, adjusting their position ever so slightly, darting furtive looks at the window, the door or the ceiling in what seemed like alarm, twitching her head, drumming her fingers on the table; all of this alternating with sudden fits of apathy, when she dropped into a chair and leant back with an air of utter exhaustion.Eline knows, for example, that: "her heart yearned for passionate love, despite her valiant efforts to suppress all such feelings", but successive sallies founder. Clearly, there remains some residual disappointment regarding Henk, but that is from a time before the story proper. For a while she succumbs to a girlish fixation on a singer, where like a moonstruck teen she fills an album with nothing but portraits of the man she finds herself obsessed by, and contrives casual meetings at a distance -- only to eventually find: "everything was ruined, all her visions and daydreams pulverised".
If that was still a secret, private obsession that even she could recognize as wishful fantasy, her next is much more open, and substantial. She has received several offers of marriage, but most are so incidental that they, and the men behind them, don't even rate a mention, but then gets one where: "there was no reason she could think of to turn him down". She accepts, and for a while plays along happily enough at being engaged, but something remains missing, and she eventually breaks it off.
Although made up of chapters that describe in great and vivid detail mundane gatherings or preparations, everyday scenes from lives, this heart of the novel -- Eline's engagement to Otto --, which itself is then chronicled quite closely, is, remarkably, kicked off without description of the nominal spark. Yes, Otto's play for Eline begins earlier, as he begins to make his feelings known -- but his actual proposal, and Eline's immediate reaction, emotional and otherwise, aren't described. It's inevitability, both before and after, perhaps do make the moment itself skippable -- and yet it's a very noticeable omission in such a detail- and scene-focussed novel (and is an impressive display of Couperus' confidence: not too many writers would imagine they could get away with this). The decline and collapse of the union, in small gestures, words, and words left unspoken, is then handled in masterly fashion. In this sequence of events Couperus too focuses on disintegration -- as, indeed, Eline Vere's story as a whole is one of disintegration.
There are other men whom Eline feels a connection to, including cousin Vincent Vere -- "a bit of a bounder, I'm afraid", as Betsy describes him, and someone who was not very good at making plans (but was also unbothered by the uncertainty of what might come next): "he had always lived from day to day". Like Eline, Vincent is a Vere (unlike Betsy, who takes after her mother), and like Eline he is also somewhat sickly -- giving him another excuse for why he doesn't settle on a specific career or path. Eline is intrigued by his fatalism -- he's truly convinced that there's little to be done to shape the future, and that things will happen regardless of any attempts to shape them -- and doesn't find the notion entirely unbelievable (as it perhaps also provides excuse and explanation for the way her own life is going):
It's strange, but I have a feeling you might be right. It could be true, I suppose.Peripatetic Vincent goes abroad again -- to the United States --, but is too ill to manage to gain any sort of meaningful foothold, but his close and wealthy friend Lawrence St Clare takes him back to Europe with him as his traveling companion. St Clare is also taken by Eline, and offers a fresh, different perspective; significantly, they first meet in Brussels -- i.e. away from The Hague ("such a backwater, everyone knew everyone else, at least by sight, and one ran into the same people all the time -- too dull for words !" as Vincent complains) --, when Eline is living with her now-married Uncle Daniel and lively wife Eliza; St Clare's advice is also for her to: "Break with your past, put it out of your mind". But part of Eline's problem is that she can not escape her world; so also she returns to The Hague (and that certainly does her no good). St Clare offers the possibility of escape -- as he too proposes to her (and this time Couperus closely describes the entire meeting and exchange) -- but Eline can not bring herself to embrace it.
Eline sees herself, as she repeatedly says, as broken, and she has neither the will nor the strength to try to find any semblance of wholeness again; the task appears too daunting to her. Her failure is in not even attempting to gather herself again -- what steps she takes, including traveling about some, are not resolute enough to even move her forward the slightest bit, hardly amounting to more than the time she spends reclined on some sofa at home, lost in thoughts and daydreams -- and instead wallowing in her condition:
Because, even though I'm young, I'm quite broken. Why won't you believe me ? Because everything in me is shattered, because my soul is in ruins.St Clare had sensibly wondered: "Aren't you rather bored ? Couldn't that be the cause of your unhappiness ?" but that's far too simple for Eline; she'd much rather wallow in her misery than really try to tackle it. And, admittedly, she does try to get involved -- with a local church for a while, for example -- but doesn't find anything that she can really bear. Her fragile health even takes one of her few pleasures away, as her doctors insist she should not sing -- literally muffling her.
Eline's condition worsens, and her isolation and misery are heightened; eventually she even lets loose, with a "shrill, crazed edge to her voice", on poor uncomprehending Ben, Betsy's dull young boy:
No, you don't know what Auntie's raving about, do you ? But it feels so good to rant and rave for once ! I wish I could do something outrageous, something quite mad, but there's nothing I can think of. I'm so dull nowadays that I can't even think at all.Eline is quite self-aware -- so also, for example:
She was struck by how easy it was for her to engage the sympathy of men, while women only seemed to like her if she made a conscious effort to make herself agreeable to them.But she can't get much deeper than that. She is, in many ways, an innocent; she is certainly not conniving. If Couperus' novel is A Novel of The Hague, it is also the story of a woman who is not of her time or her place: Eline simply does not belong, and can not bring herself to fit in anywhere -- even as so many try to find a place for her, willing to take her in after one fashion or another.
Eline does not belong in this place and time, but she can not break free. She is frustrated by how:
Life was so full of sham and make-believe ! She had always been someone who pretended, to herself as well as to everybody else, and she was still doing it -- she could not do otherwise, so ingrained a habit had it become.This proves her ultimate failing: she is unable to be true to herself -- in no small part because she does not grasp what that truth might be. Neither, however, is she able to simply embrace a role and play her part. She tries, for a while, repeatedly, and in different forms, but she always breaks the shell and shatters the illusion. And so, of course, hers is destined to be a tragic tale.
While Eline is the central figure of the novel, Couperus offers several other storylines that are largely or completely separate. These are minor, but several chapters focus entirely on them, and they involve other couplings, as numerous characters in Eline's larger circle get married; the final chapter even culminates in the engagement of Eline's former fiancé. He, and the others, adapt, taking a variety of circumstances and making what they can of them, each apparently finding happiness (though one of Eline's married friends, who took her in when she first fled her sister's household, does die, far abroad).
These shifts away from Eline -- or the elisions, as the novel at one point jumps ahead eighteen month, during which time Eline had traveled widely, mostly with her aunt and uncle -- help keep the novel from becoming too consumed with Eline's life and fate; Couperus deftly does not allow her to overpower the novel. The novel was first serialized, and so it's not that surprising that many of the chapters have a bit of the feel of set and staged scenes -- some feeling quite incidental to both the larger and smaller stories -- but Couperus also excels at these: Eline Vere truly is a rich period portrait of (certain circles in) The Hague. This is a novel of tableaux vivants, but they are anything but static.
Couperus shows a fine touch -- though he can get caught up in overly-rich and sumptuous description. Only rarely does he (really, really) over-do it however, such as with a ghastly scene of Eline at a brand-new Bechstein Madame van Raat purchases:
Madame de Raat watched her sadly; she had cherished the illusion that Eline would sing with her Paul, and that Paul might succumb to the melodious, convivial atmosphere and take to staying in of an evening, but all she heard was loud, sobbing arpeggios, the weeping dewdrops of a chromatic tremolo, and the big, splashing tears of painful staccatos.Couperus' writing is leisurely, even languorous -- reflecting also many of the characters and their rather easy-going lives --, but mostly strikes the balance between sumptuous and to the point. There are longueurs, especially early on, but it builds and all adds up nicely, into quite a powerful tale. Eline Vere is a successful character portrait -- even as that character remains opaque (but then that's part of the point, as she never comes to truly know herself either) -- as well as a successful period-(and-place-) piece, a novel of (a certain slice of society of) The Hague in the late nineteenth century. Couperus does private life and the bustle of large families well -- remarkably, for example, with a few scenes of small children really being children in a way that is rarely seen in the fiction of the times -- and while there are too many characters for him to bring much depth to most of them, he excels in the presentation of their interactions.
Eline Vere is a novel that requires some patience -- or perhaps indulgence -- but is a fine, weighty read.
- M.A.Orthofer, 30 October 2020
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Dutch author Louis Couperus lived 1863 to 1923.
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