So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Iron Collar: or, Faustina and Syomara, A Tale of Slavery Under the Romans

The Iron Collar: or, Faustina and Syomara, A Tale of Slavery Under the Romans is the third book in a series of 19 novels called The Mysteries of the People; or History of a Proletarian Family Across the Ages that was written from 1849-1857 by the French author Eugene Sue. It was translated into English in 1909 by Daniel De Leon, Marxist theoretician and leader of the Socialist Labor Party, who published the series in his New York Labor News Press. Sue created the series to be a European history depicting the struggle between the ruling and the ruled classes. These books were at one time considered classics of Marxist/Socialist thought. The English-language editions published at the beginning of the 20th Century have only recently become available through large-scale digitization projects of Public Domain books. The Iron Collar is available as an ebook through Google Books under the title The Mysteries of the People: The iron collar.

The descendants of a Gallic chief named Joel, represent the oppressed who write and pass on their stories as a reminder to their descendants to never forgive their oppressors. In a letter to his readers Sue describes the first two books of the series, The Gold Sickle and The Brass Bell. The family of a proud Gallic tribe leader named Joel fights a "holy war" against Julius Caesar's invading armies to defend "their nation, their liberty, their soil, their hearths, their families and their gods." They are either killed, sold into slavery, or commit suicide to avoid what Sue calls "frightful servitude." Joel's son Guilhern and his two children Sylvest and Syomara survive the battles only to be sold into slavery.

As a child Sylvest and his father were sold to a Roman officer who had been given their home as a spoil of war. His sister Syomara was taken off to Rome by a lecherous and lascivious old man. Guilhern was made to work what had been his land by the threat that any disobedience would be rewarded with punishment of his son. Sylvest was kept in a cage as a hostage and used to break the will of the strong farmer.

The story begins with Sylvest, now an adult living in the city of Orange as the personal servant of a cruel and rich Roman. The iron collar around his neck is inscribed with the words SERVUS SUM, "I am a slave," and the name of his owner Diavolus. He is returning from a secret meeting of a group of rebellious slaves called The Sons of the Mistletoe, and sneaks onto the estate of Faustina, a Roman lady of great wealth and cruelty, to meet his secret wife Loyse who is pregnant with their child and works for Faustina as a weaver. Instead of Loyse, he sees Faustina and hides from her. As she awaits a sorceress fortune teller. Faustina amusing herself by torturing a slave girl. Faustina is in love with a famous gladiator who, in turn, is smitten with a Gallic courtesan who has recently moved to Orange from Rome. She asks the sorceress for a way to turn the gladiator's heart and have revenge on the courtesan whose name is Syomara!

Sylvest and Syomara, separated as children and raised as slaves, are now together in the same city, but separated by their status. She is free, rich and desired by the local men, including Sylvest's master Diavolus. He is a domestic slave and struggles to reunite with her. Sorcery, torture, debauchery, gladiatorial combat and the wild beasts of the circus combine to make this a strong tale of the horrors of Roman slavery. Eugene Sue carefully footnotes this novel to show that he is recreating what historians know to be the facts of the Roman occupation of Gaul. This story of foreign invasion and a subjugated people fighting for their self-respect and self determination was written by Sue for the French common people, but it has relevance in understanding all people who struggle to throw off their oppressors and live free.

TRANSLATOR'S PREFACE. The Iron Collar; or, Faustina and Syomara is the third of the series of historic novels published by Eugene Sue under the title The Mysteries of the People; or. History of a Proletarian Family Across the Ages. The story deals with the fate of the two children of Guilhern, the central character in the story that precedes it—The Brass Bell; or, The Chariot of Death.
Slavery among the Romans was an institution such as the world had never seen before, and has never seen since. It has been a subject of vast historic research, and often have novelists sought to reproduce at least some of its leading features by placing the theater of their story in the days of so-called Roman grandeur. Bulwer Lytton tried his hand at it; one of the boldest attempts in that field is Sienkiewicz's "Quo Vadis." The most favorable criticism that these efforts deserve is that they are imperfect. It was left for the genius of Sue to reproduce, in this story, that remarkable epoch in the annals of man with a truth of coloring and a width of sweep that present the era in all its vividness. The story told in this volume is one of Sue's greatest achievements. The brilliant garb of fiction, in which history is here presented, cleaves so closely to the grand historic mold that the entrancing story develops with all the majesty of a Greek drama. The vast stores of Sue's erudition, upon which the author drew, coupled with the enthusiasm that he brought to bear upon this at once instructive and entertaining series of historic novels, produced this story with the full consciousness, as indicated by him, in his prefatory words, of the deep significance of the period that he here describes, and which culminates with the period of the following story—The Silver Cross; or, The Carpenter of Nazareth.
There is no better treatise on the age that ushered in Christianity than this novel; nor is there extant any historic work of fiction, with its theater located in Antiquity, at all comparable with this.
Daniel De Leon.
New York, October, 1908.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Camille by Alexandre Dumas

Camille by Alexandre Dumas

This Heritage Press edition is clothbound with a leather label on the spine. Illustrations by Bernard Lamotte accompany most of the 26 chapters. The translation is by Edmund Gosse and there is an Introduction by Andre Maurois, a Prefatory Letter by the author, and A Memoir of Marie Duplessis by Jules Janin. Tucked into my copy was a 4-page Heritage Club Sandglass which further describes the book, its background, and this edition.
Andre Maurois' Introduction tells the true story of how the young Alexandre Dumas met and fell in love with Alphonsine Plessis, known in Paris as Marie Duplessis. Their true story is the basis for this first novel. Since his mother was a kept woman, Dumas had a special understanding for the life Alphonsine was living, and tried, without success, to save her with his love.
This introduction is followed by a short letter from the author to the publisher of an illustrated edition that tells the story of how he wrote this book about Marie Duplessis in three weeks when his "thoughts reverted to her" while staying at a country inn that they used to visit together. Then comes a Memoir of Marie Duplessis written by the Parisian author Jules Janin who, while he only saw her three times, like everyone in Paris, knew her story.
The novel itself is a shifting of voices. In the first three chapters the narrator tells of stumbling on an auction at what turns out to be the apartment of the recently deceased Marguerite Gautier, the name Dumas gives to Marie Duplessis in the novel. He takes a fancy to a copy of the novel Manon Lescaut with "something written on the first page" and places the highest bid. When he gets the book the inscription turns out to be "Manon to Marguerite. Humility. Armand Duval."
In the fourth chapter he gets a call from Armand Duval who has been out of the country and returned when he heard of Marguerite's deathly illness, but arrived too late to see her. He has come seeking the book and the narrator is more than happy to return it. A bond is formed between these two men. They meet several more times, always talking of Marguerite. Then in chapters seven through twenty four the point of view shifts and Armand tells the narrator of his tragic love affair with Marguerite.
All through the novel Marguerite is portrayed as a kept woman plagued with consumption who relies on her patrons for the money she needs to live in luxury. The narrator claims he is "not the apostle of vice," but is instead "the echo of noble sorrow." It is this ability to portray a fallen woman as a romantic ideal to a young man in a realistic way that makes the work the classic it is. Marguerite and Armand are young lovers who can make no claims to innocence or virtue, and yet their love is deep and true.