Eline Vere by Louis Couperus

5 stars

5/5

I planned to spend Sunday reading through extracts from the Waterstone’s Eleven choices, that I picked up on Thursday, but instead gave in to my desire to finish the last 80 pages of the WONDERFUL Eline Vere.

Pushkin Press, 2010 edition (first published in 1889), 540 pages - personal library

Thank you, thank you to my ‘Secret Santa’ Armen (hmm.. not so secret!) who gave me this Pushkin Press translated Dutch classic novel by Louis Couperus at December’s Riverside Readers book group. I have thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in this delicious doorstop of a novel for the past three weeks. Before I continue, I want to do a little plug for Pushkin Press. I’ve only read two novels by this publisher of translated European literature, but this, and Journey by Moonlight have completely won me over as an advocate for their titles – Literary gems, beautifully bound quality paperbacks with yummy illustrated covers in muted tones. (NB neither of these were sent by the publisher – I just really dig this publisher!) Anyhow, to the novel itself…

My experience of reading Eline Vere was a bit like watching a very good period drama series on the television. A sumptuous visual experience conjured up by descriptions of the vivid colours of dress and opulent surroundings of well-to-do members of Dutch society at the close of the 19th century. The narrative is frequently broken up by intimate tête-à- têtes between the different characters, sometimes philosophical, sometimes frivolous, occasionally candid and cutting. This creates the impression of multiple little scenes, so that although this is long book it is broken up into enjoyable and manageable segments.

I haven’t gone straight into describing the plot because although there is a central character and several plot-lines, this book is really driven by a set of circumstances and the relationships between different characters and how they react to each other. There is much discussion of the role of fate in this novel and yet although the main character Eline, comes to believe that her future is pre-destined, what Couperus seems to play with as a device is really the idea of chance – how a word uttered or held back can make a mark on a person’s future, which can be indelible depending on the nature of the person. And this idea of a persons nature is really key to the novel as it centres around a young woman who despite having everything in her favour – riches, beauty, grace and intelligence – is unable to take control of her own will to the extent that she undermines her own chances of happiness.

Eline is an incredibly complex character. A less skilful author would be unable to gain the reader’s empathy for this charming yet doleful figure. How frustrating she should be, but yet I was sympathetic to her because despite orchestrating her own misery she genuinely seemed paralysed by her mental state. Couperus’s subtlety in conveying each characters’ core ‘being’, giving the reader insight into their mind is almost magical and it was a genuine pleasure to be introduced to the contrasting personalities in the novel. I loved the outwardly frivolous yet wilful Frederique (Freddie) and revelled in the descriptions of young Lili Verstraten aware and happy with her own indolence –

“She was never bored, even when she was idle. On the contrary, she would sit back and enjoy the notions drifting through her mind: rose petals wafting on a gentle breeze, soap bubbles, fragile and iridescent.”

But as you have probably determined by my earlier comments Eline Vere is not simply a frothy book. Couperus’ insight into people, and their sense of self-awareness is remarkable. His writing is beautifully descriptive yet well paced. Themes of love, free-will, spirituality and psychology are interwoven deftly into the story. This isn’t a novel to consume in one sitting – as that would be rather too much, like eating a whole pile of profiteroles! When enjoyed at a languid pace however, this is a richly rewarding read.

Has anyone read any of Couperus’ other novels? Can you recommend any translated foreign classics?

4 responses to “Eline Vere by Louis Couperus

  1. I’ve never heard of this book, Polly, but I do love the sound of it after your wonderful review. I love a book I can be immersed in. Must check this out…. 🙂

  2. To answer your question (‘Has anyone read any of Couperus’ other novels?’): yes, I did. Which is not surprising, for I am Dutch for one thing, and also editor of louiscouperus.nl, the website of the Louis Couperus Society (unfortunately only in Dutch). Louis Couperus wrote a lot of different books, in every conceivable genre (historical novels, fairy tales, journalism, short stories etc.), but considered you liked Eline Vere so much, I can recommend you four-part “Books of Smalle Souls” and “Old people and the things that pass”. Both these novels have the same social setting as Eline Vere. Unfortunately there are no modern translations of these novels available in English, but you can took a look gutenberg.org, where you’ll find some older translations of his works.(Also “The hidden force”, set in the Dutch East Indies in the last year of the nineteenth and the first year of the twentieth century, is highly recommended.)

  3. Like Peter Hoffman, I am also Dutch and though I have not read ‘Eline Vere’, I can second his recommendation for “Old people and the things that pass”. It involves a mystery surrounding a murder that happened a long time ago in the Dutch East Indies and multipe generations of two upper class families. ‘Eline Vere’ is on my bookshelf and now I feel rather ashamed that I have not read it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention again!

  4. Yes, yes, yes. I now really, really want to read this one. You told me bits about this when I saw you and it sounded good but you hadn’t finished it. It sounds like you loved it and now makes me want to gte lost in a big old book.

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