-It’s true then that you’ve chosen poetry before God…..
As with his language, his space is split in two, on one side there is God, the Abbey and the night, and on the other there is the King, Poetry and light.***
Nathalie Azoulai has built in her ‘Titus n’aimait pas Bérénice’, part of my 2016 French lit targets a formidable romanticised biography of playwright Jean Racine, starting out from a present day woman who has been abandoned by the man she loves, he leaving her to return to his family, his surroundings and his wealth. She is desolate and in an attempt to understand what has happened to her she plunges into the works of the great French writer of tragedies, Jean Racine, who is vaunted to see events through strong but wronged feminine characters. And slowly re-builds herself as she comes to realise that if Titus left her then he loved her less than she loved him.
‘He thinks he can hear, buzzing around his head, the distant and muffled sound of all of his heroines grouped together, unified in their tears and their anger Hermione, Aggripine, Berenice Roxane, Monime, Phedre’***
As the opening quote tells us, Racine’s life is torn between opposites, he was brought up in a strict religious sect, at Port Royal des Champs, as a Jansenite, where he learnt rigour and precision in his writing and where his only non religious reading was through the Greek masters of his classical education.
‘Writing lightens him when it is precise, if he should only remember one thing from all of his years spent here (Port Royal) it would be this: precision is a thing that man owes to God.’***
His tragedies were written in the rhyming Alexandrine, with twelve syllables per line and rhymes at the end of each pair of lines that he and all of his contemporaries used and which he was taught and worked on at Port Royal:
-Jean had just managed to write lines with twelve syllables for the first time and he wondered if the Alexandrine was a guarantee of excellence, he wasn’t sure but every day after he repeated the experience and understood that although we may not be able to code beauty, we can code music.***
I have added here an example of the Alexandrine taken from Bérénice to illustrate the meter and the rhyme:
Le temps n’est plus, Phénice, où je pouvais trembler.
Titus m’aime, il peut tout, il n’a plus qu’à parler.
Il verra le Sénat m’apporter ses hommages,
Et le peuple de fleurs couronner ses images.
De cette nuit, Phénice, as-tu vu la splendeur ?
Tes yeux ne sont-ils pas tous pleins de sa grandeur ?
Ces flambeaux, ce bûcher, cette nuit enflammée,
Ces aigles, ces faisceaux, ce peuple, cette armée,
Nathalie Azoulai then takes us on to the second part of his life, ambition, creation and King Louis XIV the sun King. Molière is now old and the authors of the day are the Corneille brothers. Jean is obsessive jealous and because of his background he rejects the machines and the grandeur of the theatre around the King, stripping away the superfluous and concentrating on the feelings of his female protagonists. Seventeenth century France was no easy place to be a successful playwright, Azoulai describes an event at his opening of Brittanicus:
And there above the crowd, alone in an empty loge is the old shadow, watching and orchestrating the applause, the whistling, Corneille come to see close up how he is taking on Rome, his monopoly.***
We learn how Moliere’s leading lady actress defects to Racine and how together they become the court favourites, despite the Kings need for opulence and Racines leaning to sobriety in his tragedies, if not in his life, as the King says to him:
I wanted the sublime to be at the centre of the festivities and I think that we have succeeded began the King, this We melts on Jean’s tongue like a lump of sugar.***
We follow Jean’s life through his successes, through the deaths of Molière and then Corneille which cause people to ask themselves the question which of the two authors, Racine or Corneille will be most remembered and will embody the idea of French genius.
I hope that when this book is translated into English that you enjoy it as much as I have. I will be reading Racine before seeing his plays, in the near future I hope!
First published in French as Titus n’aimait pas Bérénice’ by P.O.L in 2015
*** My translation