The Kingdom is Within You : Leo Tolstoy – “My Religion”

So who is this tall, dark, and brooding aristocrat?

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Hint: Heap 50 years on him, give him a crazy unkempt beard, and handsome young Count Leo Tolstoy morphs into one of those kooks howling incoherently about “The Kingdom of God” and terrorizing serfs in the Russian countryside.

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I was browsing through one of Count Leo Tolstoy’s many book-length spiritual essays, 1884’s “My Religion,” in a Christmas-related bout of spirituality… It felt SO familiar! It struck me that

A) either Leo and I have a startling kinship when it comes to these matters, our equally brilliant minds colliding in harmonic agreement OR

B) (and accurate); I had already read this when I was a kid, and kind of forgot.

In any case, it must have been highly influential and formative, because I still lean on some of Leo’s points. And yet, re-reading “My Religion” as an adult, Tolstoy’s eager, overlong exploration seems sometimes naive. He wrote this at 58! How old should a person get before becoming  “woke” to the dissonance between a society’s jibber-jabber about Jesus and its active refusal to engage in anything resembling Christianity? 58 is too old for one of the wisest novelists of all time to grab the reader’s lapels for some truthful shaking that involves “mind-blowers” like: “If we REALLY believed in Jesus- We would refuse to have ARMIES! WAKE UP, SHEEPLE!”

Dude. We know. We read “War and Peace.” Or tried.

And yet that hideous disconnect between a society’s professed beliefs and its structures are always worth pointing out to the young because it hasn’t gone away and it never might, no matter how many Tolstoys write to expose our communal, pervasive conviction that, sure, Jesus had some cute ideas, but, let’s face it, no one has time for that hippie crap.

Tolstoy, a life-long believer of “faith-through-reason” who consulted with priests and rabbis, and who laboriously learned Greek so that he could dive into the unmediated Gospels, goes at length into the vexing paradox of how religion, by its existence, ensures that the teachings of Jesus go unpracticed. More interesting are Tolstoy’s Biblically-based conclusions that the ideas of Heaven and Resurrection are post-factum tacks. Jesus rarely brought up the topic and was far more interested in terrestrial justice and the under-privileged inheriting THIS Earth. As most rabbis of his time, he was likely to see the whole concept of the after-life as an intrusive non-Hebraic superstition dripping into the Scriptures by virtue of Roman rule. After all, it was the Romans who believed in some shade-laden Hades, not the more observation-based, “dust to dust” Jews. In his few pronouncements about Heaven, Jesus was either too evasively vague (“The kingdom of Heaven is like… A party that never ends?”) or so disappointingly clear that his followers bend over backwards to ignore his words ( Sorry, peeps, you do NOT get to meet up with your loved ones after you die. Not according to Jesus, anyway).

“The Kingdom of God,” (Tolstoy grows convinced) “is a place that exists right here, and right now, and within you.”

But you can’t get to it until you go looking for it.

As an adult, I see is that Tolstoy’s conclusions are predicated upon a number of fallacies. Chief among these are his unquestioning acceptance that the Gospels are accurate pieces of unbiased journalism – as long as he gets to chop out the lines he detects as obvious fabrications. This leads to some convenient, selective interpretations, such as several moments when, dissatisfied with Biblical verses, he decides that the half he agrees with is authentic divine wisdom, while the half he disagrees with is pure forgery, a human interpolation. Like St. Augustine- and truly, like most theologians- Tolstoy is torn between his overpowering need for faith, and the intellectual skills that allow him to see that the primary cultural source of his faith is… shall we say… of uneven literary merit.

Ultimately, Tolstoy becomes convinced that the greatest and most un-Christian of sins is believing that Earth God is NOT already Heaven: a Heaven we willfully prevent from existing by virtue of our refusal to listen to the Sermon of the Mount without condescension. Whether one agrees with the good Count or not, he walked his talk, and he did it on bare feet, if I accept this painting as Gospel:

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This Is Why You Don’t Run With Swords : Pierre Sales – “Sergeant Renaud”

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Once popular in France, Pierre Sales wrote a large number of morality novels under the “Parisian Adventures” uber-title, of which I tried “Sergeant Renaud.” Seduced and seemingly abandoned, Marie Renaud is a Parisian seamstress prepared to enter single motherhood at a time when that might as well have made her a plague carrier. What she doesn’t know is that her impregnating suitor only failed to “do the honorable thing” because he died in in an unfortunate, grizzly, eye-popping fencing accident. (Fencing as in the sword-related sport, not as in “white-picket fences” or “the disposal of illegal merchandise”). An easy, if morally antiquated, read, but I do not think I will pursue further acquaintance with this particular author, not when there’s Eugene Sue to cover the same milieu.

More Counts! : Auguste Maquet: “The Count of Lavernie”

“Antoinette, I have known you for 20 hours, but count on me for all eternity! As long as there is breath in me and blood in you, my breath shall find your blood!”

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And that exalted sort of romance is the hallmark of “The Count of Lavernie,” one of Auguste “Auggy Mack” Maquet’s unjustly forgotten post-Dumas novels.

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(Truly, Maquet’s solo work of any interest are this Count, its sequel “The Fall of Satan”; “La Belle Gabrielle” and its sort of sequel “The Maison de Baigneurs”; and I am curious about “L’Envers and L’Endroit.” These works are all decent. In the way Paul Mahalin’s Dumasian novels are decent.

“The Count of Lavernie” is a typically lengthy saga, set at the end of Louis XIV’s reign (post “Vicomte de Bragelonne” and pre-“Chevalier of Harmental,”) “The Count of Lavernie” follows the love affair between brave, militarily-inclined Gerard of Lavernie and orphaned Antoinette de Savieres. She’s on her way to the nunnery in Saint-Ghislain, he’s on the way to the army, but after they collide, love does its first-sight thing. Are there any number of secrets relating to both Gerard and Antoinette’s births? You betcha! Will Gerard rescue Antoinette from celibacy before she says her vows? Maybe, but that’s merely the beginning of a grand tale involving the villainous Monsieur Louvois, the Minister of War, and his intrigues against the King’s mistress / secret wife, Madame de Maintenon. In the bigger world theatre, Louis XIV and William of Orange, King of England,  face each other. Due to the vagaries of monarchic nomenclature, William of Orange has the distinction of being both William III (of England) and William II (of Scotland.)

The novel sticks to the standard Dumas (or should I say Dumas / Maquet) tactic of letting the actions of fictional characters reverberate all the way up to the real life game of thrones. While Gerard and Antoinette are typical handsome knight / beautiful maiden material, the secondary characters shine: Jaspin the shy abbot; Belair the horny guitar player and his girlfriend, the sassy Violette. Playwright Jean Racine has a cameo.

Portrait presumed to be Jean Racine (1638-99) (oil on canvas)

And then there is the comedy relief villain “Desbuttes.” I can not substantiate this, but Desbuttes, a “thief” of no talents who rises to grand aspirations, totally sounds like Maquet is throwing shade at Dumas. This is some John Lennnon / Paul McCartney post-Beatles acrimony. This passage REALLY sticks out tonally in the novel. Maybe “Desbuttes” ISN’T “Dumas”, but I can GUARANTEE that Maquet felt like this about Alexandre at some point. After a physical depiction that fits this Marzio Mariani caricature to a T…

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…Maquet says:

He always jammed himself into expensive clothes, smiled at his friends as long as they played along, talked about them behind their backs. He always acted like a bon vivant, but he came from a long line of bankrupt, bragging lackeys. He was greedy, but he appeared to people as if he was generous with money- because the money he played with wasn’t his. He spent fortunes prodigiously, but on his passions and vices. He always lied, to others and to himself. Even though he was accidentally rich, he preferred to be a debtor, and he took it up as a profession. He owed money to his best friends, his mistresses, and his servants, and he never paid them back.”

OUCH.

 

 

Cool Hand, Warm Gun : Rene Goscinny, Morris – “Lucky Luke”

“I am a lonesome cowboy, I’m a long long way from home.”

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“Lucky Luke,” some 60 + adventures into his journey, is second only to “Asterix” in my Franco-Belgian BD catalogue (I suppose Spirou and Fantasio are a close third). Belgian cartoonist Morris created ‘Lucky Luke’ in post-war France and eventually hooked up with Rene Goscinny (the sprightly, witty writer of ‘Asterix’ with Albert Uderzo, and of “Iznogoud” with Jean Tabary). The saga is one of Western tropes through French binoculars, (call it the baguette Western) but has some actual historical worth to it, plus more jokes than your average John Wayne oater.

Lucky Luke is a purely Mediterranean character, olive-skinned, cigarette dangling, (surgeon general be damned). He has been disrupted  from his siesta into showing loco Americans how not to kill each other over fool’s gold prospects. Accompanied by his trusty stallion, Jolly Stomper, as well as clueless Rin Tin Can, (the Inspector Closeau of the canine kingdom), Lucky Luke meets all the Wild West greats in non-flattering encounters: petulant Billy the Kid; the Daltons (same face, different heights); a Robin Hoodian Jesse James; Frank James, as Shakespeare-quoter; easy-going Calamity Jane; and prank-loving dimwit Cole Younger.

There is so much to explore in this great masterful series, I simply can not recommend it enough. The Cinebooks edition do a great job of translating the French puns, or figuring out alternate English jokes. “Lucky Luke” should not be missing in any library of the world’s iconic comics.

RATING: MASTERPIECE!

Tigress, Tigress: Michel Zevaco – “Hotel St. Pol” and “Jean the Fearless” (Hardy Passavant #1, 2)

hotelMichel Zevaco is Alexandre Dumas on speed, burning through several novels’ worth of plot in a couple of chapters, but his characters never come close to resembling humans: they’re passions masquerading as people.

I am currently reading the Hardy de Passavant feuilletons. (The surname roughly translates as “Gets Ahead,” so, you know, “Hardy Goes Forward”).  The novel takes place in the early 1400s, during the reign of mad Charles VI. Sexy Queen Isabel of Bavaria, a woman who can only truly love her favorite tigress, Imperia, has nonetheless developed a lustful obsession for Jean the Fearless, the Count of Nevers. That’s bad for Lauren, a maid of honor who has an illegitimate daughter by Jean. The girl is called Roselys, and has grown up with young Hardy de Passavant, a rather standard sword-swinging D’Artagnan. Passavant has  a brotherly affection for Roselys, which in the course of the novel will, of course, evolve into true love.

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Isabel separates Roselys from her mother, and sends the mother into the arms of a Mad Scientist with the Satanic name of Saitano (who, of course, gets all the sanest, most scientific speeches. ) The heroic young Hardy gets sent to prison in the Hotel St. Pol, for overly convoluted reasons, and there he spends enough time so that Roselys is of legal age, making things less creepy. In one of the book’s better reversals, we prepare ourselves for his Monte Cristian escape, involving an attempt to flood the royal prison… but when he is about to effect his silly escape plan, he is rescued by Roselys, who has grown up as Odette. “Odette” gets presented to Court as the only person who can, at least momentarily, cure Charles VI’s madness. Then things get problematic when she attracts both Isabel’s jealousy and Jean the Fearless’ attention.  The last one is doubly problematic, since he is unaware that he is her father and tries to boink her relentlessly.

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In the continuation, “Jean the Fearless,” we find that Saitano has brainwashed Lauren into believing she’s a prostitute, in one of the book’s more pathos-pushing subplots. All part of his “Grand Work,” his Elixir of Life. Saitano’s other victims include Bruscaille, Bragaille and Brancaillon, an unfunny comic relief trio that relieves nothing; we first meet them as tied-up prisoners in Saitano’s dungeon, so mostly we feel bad for them.

Although there are subplots involving the Duc D’Orleans, the Duc de Berry and Phillipe of Burgundy fighting for the throne of mad Charles VI, when Zevaco bothers with history at all, it is to chart one of the earliest uprisings of the bourgeoisie against the nobility, noting, as a sociologist, that the bourgeoisie would eventually oppress the poor. Someone always has to oppress someone else.

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Before the tumultuous climax of “Jean the Fearless,” Zevaco has a disclaimer where he throws up his hands and says: “Look, I know it’s not plausible that 17 of my characters are colliding in the same room as the novel ends, but I’m only the author here! I have no control!” The ensuing scene is actually quite ahead of its time, showing one event from many perspectives by rewinding to the beginning of the event, in a quasi-Rashomon situation. I feel like Michel Zevaco was one of the earliest adopters of cinematic techniques into popular fiction, leading to a world in which most popular novels are intended as movie pitches and wordy screenplays (no judgment).

Ultimately, what the reader will remember from the first two novels (there’s 2 more) is the icky accidental incest and the tigress vs watchdog fight, because one doesn’t see too many of THOSE.

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