30/07/2011

Mary Elizabeth Braddon - Sur les traces du serpent (The Trail of the Serpent)

This article is bilingual. Please scroll down for the English version.


La postérité est parfois bien capricieuse: romancière à très gros tirages de son vivant, Mary Elizabeth Braddon connut après sa mort une longue période d'oubli relatif, ses oeuvres disparaissant progressivement des rayons des librairies et n'intéressant plus guère que les historiens de la littérature. Son retour en grâce au cours des trente dernières années n'en est que plus spectaculaire qui l'a vue hissée au rang de figure majeure du sensation novel, ce genre typiquement victorien dont Wilkie Collins est le plus célèbre et le plus talentueux représentant, et ses oeuvres même les plus obscures rééditées et abondamment commentées. Braddon a également trouvé sa place dans la généalogie du roman policier, grâce à son Secret de Lady Audley mis par d'aucuns sur le même plan d'importance historique et artistique que La dame en blanc ou La Pierre de Lune dudit Collins. Le phénomène n'a pas épargné la France, où les éditions des oeuvres de Braddon se sont multipliées au cours de la dernière décennie, sous la double égide de la collection Labyrinthes du Masque et des éditions Joëlle Losfeld. Domaine public aidant, les éditeurs ont parfois porté leur choix sur les mêmes livres, de sorte qu'il existe à l'heure où j'écris deux éditions du Secret de Lady Audley, dans des traductions différentes.

Sur les traces du serpent (The Trail of the Serpent) est le premier roman de Braddon, publiée en 1860. Le livre suit pour l'essentiel les faits et méfaits d'un sinistre individu se faisant appeler Jabez North puis plus tard Robert (de) Marolle, et dont le moins que l'on puisse dire est que les scrupules ne l'étouffent pas dans sa quête forcenée de la richesse et du pouvoir. Il se rend directement ou indirectement coupables de plusieurs morts avant de trouver son maître en la personne d'un inspecteur qui, pour être muet, n'a pas les yeux dans sa poche.

Bien que la quatrième de couverture insiste sur le rôle "fondamental" de ce personnage, Sur les traces du serpent n'est pas un roman policier au sens moderne du mot. Le coupable est connu dès le départ, l'enquête ne démarre pas avant la moitié du livre et le détective doit au moins autant à la chance qu'à ses talents déductifs. L'intérêt historique est donc limité. Quid de l'intérêt littéraire?

Pour un jeune auteur dont c'est la première oeuvre publiée, Braddon fait montre d'une bonne maîtrise du récit et d'une forte personnalité, manifeste dès l'ouverture du livre, laquelle est une manière de tour de force. Elle sait écrire et fait preuve d'une belle verve satirique. Mais c'est un jeune auteur, et à ce titre elle ne sait pas se borner. D'où une tendance lassante à la longue à se regarder écrire, à sermonner et à coucher sur le papier tout ce qui lui passe par la tête. Surtout, elle reste prisonnière des conventions de l'époque. L'intrigue manque de rigueur et multiplie coïncidences et épisodes mélodramatiques; le dialogue, parfois brillant, est souvent ampoulé à l'extrême - et le narrateur omniscient est tellement intrusif et verbeux que celui de Tom Jones est en comparaison un modèle de discrétion et de laconisme.

Est-ce à dire que le livre est illisible? Certes pas. Comme je l'ai dit, Braddon même à ses débuts sait trousser une histoire et créer des personnages intéressants, même si pas particulièrement profonds ni mémorables. Il s'agit juste de savoir à quoi s'attendre; Sur les traces du serpent est une oeuvre de jeunesse, tout à fait agréable si l'on fait abstraction de ses nombreux défauts, et présente tout de même un certain intérêt historique. Mais ce n'est pas le livre à lire si l'on veut s'expliquer la fortune posthume de l'auteur; on lui préférera le déjà cité Lady Audley et, surtout, ses nombreuses et souvent remarquables nouvelles, meilleures souvent que ses romans - comme beaucoup de femmes de lettres de son époque, Braddon n'a pas toujours écrit pour l'amour de l'art, et la prédilection de son époque pour les pavés n'était pas pour arranger les choses.


Posterity is a whismical mistress: a best-selling author in her lifetime, Mary Elizabeth Braddon entered a long period of near-oblivion after her death - most of her books fell out of print and only scholars expressed interest in them. Her comeback in the last thirty years is all the more impressive: suddenly she was hailed as one of the major figures of the sensation novel right up there with Wilkie Collins; her works were reissued and abundantly commented. What's more, she found a place in the genealogy tree of mystery fiction, as Lady Audley's Secret was seen by some as a pionneering work in the genre, equally important as the aforementioned Collins' The Woman in White and The Moonstone.

The Trail of the Serpent (1860) is Braddon's first novel and (mostly) concerns itself with the deeds and misdeeds of a nasty piece of work successively known as Jabez North and Richard (later "Of") Marolles. Not one to be bothered with silly things like ethics, he brings directly or indirectly several deaths and a lot of sorrow before he is finally outsmarted by a mute yet observant detective.

While the blurb of the French edition emphasizes the "fundamental" role of the latter character, The Trail of the Serpent is not a detective novel. There is no mystery as to the identity of the culprit, no investigation until halfway through the book and the sleuth's success owes as much to good luck as to his deductive skills. The book's historical interest is thus limited. What of its literary value?

For a first-published author, Braddon displays a good mastery of storytelling and a strong personality which manifests right from the virtuoso first chapter. She can write and has a sharp wit. Still, she is a freshwoman and has no sense of nuance. Hence a quickly tiresome tendency to overwriting, sermoning and digressing at her heart's content. What's worse, she remains enthralled to the literary conventions of her time. The plot lacks rigour and piles up coincidences and melodramatic situations; dialogue while at times clever is most often laughably purple - and the ominiscient narrator is so intrusive and verbose as to make that of Tom Jones look like the epitome of laconism and discretion.

Is it to say that it is an unreadable book? Certainly not. As I said before, Braddon even at this early stage of her career could tell a story and create interesting, if not particularly deep or memorable, characters. You just need to know what to expect. The Trail of the Serpent is an early work with a lot of appeal to those willing to tolerate its many flaws, and its historical interest is not to be denied. Still, this is not the one to begin with if you're trying to find out what the fuss is about Braddon. The aforementioned Audley is a better place to start, but I for one would recommend to check her abundant shorter fiction which at its best equals and possibly exceeds any of her novels - like many women writers of her time, Braddon didn't always write for the love of the craft; and living in a period when a good novel had to be long didn't make things better.

22/07/2011

The Revolutionary Archaism of Conan Doyle

While A Study in Scarlet came out nine years after Green's The Leavenworth Case and only one year after Fergus Hume's early best-seller The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, you'd be easily forgiven for switching the chronology as Doyle's book actually seems to predate them. Doyle's contradictions as a mystery writer are in full display in the novel that introduced Sherlock Holmes to a then-indifferent world: on the one hand Doyle manages to create the final synthesis of the Great Detective and thus forever change the course of the genre; on the other, his plotting techniques are comparatively primitive and suggest that while Doyle self-admittedly had a great debt to Poe and Gaboriau, he wasn't much aware of the work of their followers.

First there is the two-part structure. Part I deals with Holmes' investigation and solving of the murders of Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stangerson; Part II is a long (and, to some, tedious) flashback providing the background to the murders, followed by a conclusion which discusses the fate of the murderer and allows Holmes to explain how he unfolded the truth. Doyle believed like Gaboriau (and Poe) that the detective story is primarily a demonstration - the great detective takes on a problem that baffled everyone else, solves it as easy as pie and then explains how he did it. Works well for a short story; not so much for a novel - it needs some fleshing-out to be palatable, and turning back the clock is as good a way as any. Doyle borrowed the technique from Gaboriau and used it again - and much more successfully - in The Sign of Four and The Valley of Fear.

Doyle's "demonstrational" approach to mystery writing also means he has not much interest in the guilty party's identity. The murderer might be anybody, and turns out to be a character never seen or heard of prior to his designation as the Man Who - a device Doyle would use liberally in his later work. So secondary is the matter to Doyle that he gives it away halfway through the book - obviously, Drebber and Stangerson's acts in Utah were of greater significance to him.

Had Doyle written two decades earlier, none of this would have been of much concern. The problem is, the mystery genre had moved a great deal forward by the time Doyle wrote A Study in Scarlet, and he apparently didn't take notice. Though neither Green or Hume was a match for Doyle in terms of literary skills, they both had showed that it was possible for a novel to focus on a mystery and its unravelling in a linear (well, almost) fashion; they had also realized the naming of the culprit was a climax in itself which worked even better when said culprit turned out to be one of the members of the cast rather than a rabbit pulled out of the hat at the last minute.

Because he was a mystery writer out of necessity rather than vocation and held his work in the genre in pretty low esteem, Doyle never really cared to 'evolve' over the years. Still, he showed at times a more modernistic approach to his craft. The Hound of the Baskervilles, probably the only later Holmes story he wrote with pleasure, adopts a "modern" linear structure and for once the whodunit element really matters; it's a mystery why Doyle didn't seem to learn from this achievement and later reverted to type with the admirable yet archaic The Valley of Fear.

None of this should be taken to belittle Doyle's contribution to the genre and to literature at large. For all their occasional (and, on second thought, relatively minor) archaisms, the Sherlock Holmes stories basically set the tone for all of the detective stories to come - even hardboiled writers more or less adopted Doyle's template. Holmes is a wonderful creation and the stories bear multiple re-readings with no sign of wearing out. It's no exaggeration to call Doyle a revolutionary, one of the very few genuine ones in the history of the genre, though it's certainly a paradox.

01/07/2011

Here's To The Ladies

Matthieu Esbrat, an old friend of mine sharing my passion for mysteries, has just created a nice Youtube video celebrating "Queens of Crime" past and present; he asked me for a link and I'm more than happy to oblige:


Matthieu's tastes being more catholic than mine, there are a lot of contemporary writers including some Scandinavians and one French. Some are easily recognized, some others much less so. A virtual glass of beer is offered to the first person to correctly identify all of them!