The lockdown in France, now in its third iteration, has had little effect on Paris’s booksellers. The other day Librairie Delamain, across the street from the Palais Royale, had a masked queue outside politely obeying the sign on the door limiting capacity to twelve customers at a time. Galignani on the rue de Rivoli had a good number of customers lining up to pay, while the salespeople at the Librairie Fontaine in Passy were tripping over customers’ dogs (mine included) in the aisle.

Unlike during the October confinement, however, bookstores are now officially classed as businesses of première nécessité along with florists, hairdressers, cobblers, and chocolatiers. Other openers—mattress, bedding, pet, and marble-flooring shops—are also furtively getting into the spirit. The government’s newly expansive view of life’s necessities has created a more cheerful public mood than late last year. This, along with the recent Easter holiday (traditionally a good time for book sales) and an increasing anti-Amazon sentiment, has helped the trade considerably. And the lively mix of titles and subjects on the new arrivals table—music, novels, centenary celebrations, and exhibition catalogues—makes for interesting and eclectic reading.

While Paris’s museums and other cultural institutions remain closed, their exhibition catalogues hint at what lies in store for the near future. The year 2021 is the centenary of the death of that musical polymath Camille Saint-Saëns. The Bibliotheque Nationale (where many of his papers and manuscripts are deposited) and the Opéra Garnier (where several of his eight operas were performed) have co-published Saint-Saëns, un esprit libre to mark the occasion.

Throughout his career and despite his popularity with the public, Saint-Saëns rubbed many of his more progressive musical colleagues the wrong way. He was too classical for Franck’s acolytes, too skeptical to join the ranks of Paris’s swooning Wagnerites, and was poo-pooed by Debussy and his crowd for being an old fogey. Trained by the only organist in Paris who dared to play Bach, Saint-Saëns throughout his life hewed to the idea that the form and character of a piece and the clarity and vigor of its structure were more important than overt tugs at the heartstrings.

Despite Saint-Saëns’ reputation with his fellow musicians, he was nevertheless a pivotal figure in the development of French musical taste. “I am an eclectic,” he wrote, “a great flaw perhaps, but one impossible for me to correct.” That eclecticism drove him to found the Société nationale de musique (its motto: Ars Gallica), which programmed works by young French composers (some of whom later became his critics) at a time when nobody else would perform them. Un esprit libre contains essays on Saint-Saëns’ boyhood, his piano and organ virtuosity, his operas (now seeing the light of day again thanks to the Bru Zane record label), his forays into the world of dance, and his writings. The book’s photographs and portraits show him, especially when young, as a man of austere and penetrating intelligence.  

Two men in particular created the modern French organ school: the organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll and the virtuoso organist and teacher Charles-Marie Widor. Renaud Machart and Vincent Warnier’s Les grands organistes du XXe siècle (Buchet/Chastel) profiles some of the most notable of Widor’s musical progeny, along with German and English performers like Helmut Walcha and Lionel Rogg and even jazz organists like Rhoda Scott and Jimmy Smith. The book gives us a good sense of these artists’ personalities and, occasionally, their vivid idiosyncrasies: the contrasting chapters about the scholarly, ever-steady E. Power Biggs and the flamboyant showman Virgil Fox are a delight.

Widor himself comes across as a daunting but attractive personality. As a young man, he found himself installed (with Cavaillé-Coll’s help) at the gigantic one-hundred-stop Saint-Sulpice organ when its titulaire suddenly died in the waning minutes of 1869. The authors explain how Widor refashioned Franck’s Grande pièce symphonique into a new genre, the organ symphony, and left us ten wonderful examples in that medium. When Widor became professor of organ at the Conservatoire de Paris after Franck’s death, he inherited the composer’s pupils and taught them technique—how to play Bach, in fact, a composer to whom they had had little exposure. Technique was certainly not something that Widor lacked. “He was the greatest organist I ever heard,” wrote Louis Vierne, who noted “the breadth of his phrasing,” his “magnificent legato,” and “his supreme taste in apportioning light and shadow” over a line. And unlike many of the breed, Widor knew how to live. After Sunday Mass and on Wednesday afternoons, he would stroll over to Foyot’s restaurant facing the Senate, where he would sit down with Maupassant, Alexandre Dumas fils, Carolus Duran, Busoni, and others who wanted to pass a few stimulating hours.

We learn that Widor’s pupils included Charles Tournemire (whose backbiting memoirs enliven his own chapter), Vierne (titulaire at Notre Dame from 1900 and the composer of six organ symphonies), and Marcel Dupré, Vierne’s understudy, or suppléant. The organist (and later missionary) Albert Schweitzer studied with Widor, who, in this case, got back as good as he gave. We read how Schweitzer’s flowing interpretations of Bach’s Chorales influenced the editions Widor prepared for Schirmer.

Dupré was a great virtuoso and an equally great teacher, as shown by his illustrious pupils: Marie-Claire Alain, Jean Langlais, and Olivier Messiaen, to name a few. But he certainly could raise blood pressures. The gentle Vierne broke with Dupré when the latter advertised himself as “Notre Dame’s organist” (that was Vierne’s job) on a lucrative American tour. Dupré himself turned against the greatest of all his pupils, Jeanne Demessieux, even to the extent of trying (unsuccessfully) to block her appointment as titulaire of La Madeleine. Her recordings of Liszt and Franck, now over fifty years old, show an astonishing lightness of touch, fleet pedaling (Dupré said that “the rest of us were elephants” by comparison), and poetic interpretation. This is also the centenary year of her birth.

When André Gide was twelve, he heard the great Russian piano virtuoso Anton Rubinstein playing Chopin in recital. Seventy years later, just before his death, Gide told the actress Annick Morice that what he most remembered about Rubinstein’s interpretation was its disarming simplicity. He played, Gide said, “like he was gradually discovering the piece with you.” It was a formative experience for Gide, himself a more than capable pianist. In his Notes sur Chopin, published in 1931, Gide wrote that the “charming hesitation, surprise, and rapture” of Chopin’s music comes from creating a sense of improvisation, the “searching, inventing, and discovering” of the work as it unfolds. He advises playing Chopin “dare I say, slowly” and at half or even low volume—just as Chopin did in his own performances. Chopin, writes Gide, “propose, suppose, insinue, seduit, persuade”—yet almost never does he affirm.

Gallimard recently re-printed its latest edition of Notes sur Chopin. Themselves scarcely more than thirty pages long, the Notes are rounded out here with extracts from Gide’s correspondence, selections from his Journal, and other writings. Also included are short essays by Boris de Schloezer and, for the prosecution, by André Suarès, that eccentric Chopin hater. The Notes finish with the transcript of the piano lesson that Gide gave Annick Morice, in which he spoke of his admiration for Anton Rubinstein’s playing while dismissing that of Artur Rubinstein (no relation)—who enjoyed a reputation of being the Chopin pianist of his time—as brash and unfeeling. Artur took poorly to Gide’s views, by all accounts.

Gide’s dislikes are clear: a virtuoso approach to Chopin’s delicate pieces (“they play Chopin like they do Liszt, and they don’t understand the difference”), sentimentality (“they never seem to leave the minor”), forced phrasings, and corrupted editions. He sees parallels between Chopin’s music and Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (a point snortingly contested by Suarès), and sees Chopin as the opposite of Wagner (unlike Nietzsche, who offered Bizet for that role), a comparison gently undermined in Michaël Levinas’ thoughtful preface. But there is no denying Gide’s affection for Chopin’s music, and his admiration of the man. Who else, Gide writes, would use the word sfogato to indicate “a puff of breeze coming to break the flow, unexpectedly refreshing and perfuming” the middle of the Barcarolle?

Apart from her distinguished work on the French Revolution, the Breton-born historian Mona Ozouf has also written on Henry James and George Eliot. The Folio imprint has just republished Ozouf’s L’autre George: À la rencontre de George Eliot, a tribute to the English novelist as seen through chapters discussing The Mill on the Floss, Middlemarch, and Daniel Deronda. The “other” in the title refers to the first George in the minds of most French, George Sand, and the book elegantly closes with a chapter on “les deux Georges.”

Ozouf tells us that she first tried to read Daniel Deronda when she was ten but soon gave up. She was lucky enough to inherit her mother’s own third-form teacher who, one day, explained to the class that English literature had no equal in making “adolescent girls understand the hopes, sorrows, doubts, and torments of their age, and to teach them how to live better,” citing as an exemplar Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss. For Ozouf, that was the start of her interest in Eliot.

Eliot herself considered her novels as a form of social history, and Ozouf agrees. Her chapter on The Mill on the Floss is subtitled “The Grip of the Past”; on Middlemarch, “the Arrangements of the Present”; while Daniel Deronda’s chapter is “The Imagination of the Future.” The three novels illustrate how England changed over the nineteenth century, along with the hopes and expectations of its people.

Ozouf reminds us that one writer back in the Thirties complained that he no longer saw “Eliotists” anywhere—but “let us sound the rallying cry all the same.” These days, George Sand has become enormously popular once again in France, Ozouf says, and she hopes that this will be the case for “the other George” as well.

“With the gendarmes, one can always count on a miracle,” says Brigitte Hunter in Yves Ravey’s bleak comedy, Adultère (Les Éditions de Minuit), and so it transpires. Jean Seghers, owner of a failed gas station, has just filed for bankruptcy. His mechanic/night watchman, Ousmane, is hounding him for his statutory severance payment. When Seghers’ mother refuses to help out, Seghers simply helps himself to a few large-denomination notes in her soup tureen.

Seghers’ state of mind is not improved by his fears that his wife, Remedios, is carrying on an affair with the bankruptcy administrator in charge of Seghers’ case. The good news, as it turns out, is that she isn’t. The bad news is that she is carrying on with Ousmane.

Strong measures, Seghers concludes, are called for. What could be more appropriate—hours after a bizarre dinner he and Remedios give for the Ousmanes, the bankruptcy administrator, and Seghers’ mother and her new lover—than to call Ousmane back into the petrol-soaked workshop and heave in a Molotov cocktail?

Before then, we get a sense of Seghers’ oddity by his flat, adjective- and adverb-free prose, unemotional even when describing the bankruptcy and the adulterers in flagrante. Our unease increases by his occasional description of some seemingly trivial piece of clothing or object. His petty rationalizations about the theft, his annoyance at being confronted, and the unemotional tone throughout put us in mind of one of Patricia Highsmith’s psychopathic characters: Tom Ripley, or perhaps the unsettling Robert Forrester in The Cry of the Owl.   

The police are inclined to treat the case as an accident. There seems to be no motive for arson as the insurance cover is for replacement only. That is until Brigitte Hunter, the insurance investigator, finds out from Remedios that she was in full swing with Ousmane when Seghers summoned him to his fiery fate in the workshop. In the final pages, even the dullard gendarme has figured things out, setting the stage for the book’s improbably miraculous end.

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