Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Logic, that angular old maid with flat hips

The Madonna of the Sleeeping Cars, by Maurice Dekobra, is a very charming novel written in 1925 and recently reissued by Melville House.

The story is told by Prince Gerard Séliman, who works as private secretary to the widowed Lady Diana Wyndham, who set out the terms quite clearly:

"I am a woman to whom you'll be rather more a companion than a secretary, or, I might say, you'll have to play the part of a husband — up to the point of coming into my bedroom. You understand that! You're going to take care of my interests. You're going to give me a lot useful advice. You're going to prevent me from doing stupid things whenever possible, because they tell me that that is the favorite pastime of women of my class. Lastly, I hope you won't hesitate to throw out any questionable admirers, who may try to profit by my feminine caprices."

Séliman carries out his duties with grace and humour, very William Powell, but they become more complicated when Lady Diana realizes that her funds are dwindling and that she may have to remarry. An interesting offer from a Soviet delegation leads to travelling across Europe, encountering secret agents, and enduring harsh times in a Soviet prison.

"Without any doubt, you are the strangest individual I have ever met. You are a combination of the sublime and the ridiculous, if you will forgive me for saying so. A distinguished gentleman at noon — a clown at midnight — you excel in every capacity! Here you are moving heaven and earth for the sake of a woman who is not even yours. To my mind, that isn't logic."

"Sometimes, Griselda, it is dangerous to challenge logic, that angular old maid with flat hips."

The charm of the narrative voice outweighs, for me, the adventurous spy-novel elements, although there are some unexpected and astute observations, often downplayed as mere witticisms, regarding politics, and in particular the Russian, or Soviet, character.

I offered him a gold-tipped cigarette. He accepted it without question. His companion, who possessed a polyhedric figure and broken nose, along with bloody cheekbones, extended his flabby hand toward my case, removed the eleven remaining cigarettes and slipped them into a pocket of his leather coat without saying a word.

I remarked facetiously, "I perceive that your friend practices self-preservation."

The mole-like gentleman made an evasive gesture and replied, "Well, that's Communism, isn't it?"

While much is made of the fact that his style earned its own adjective, dekrobisme, I can't say I've ever seen the word used outside of in reference to Dekobra'a own work, and frankly, not too many people these days talk about Dekobra at all.

All in all, the story feels kind of formulaic, with its femmes fatales and its Soviet thugs, its showdowns and twisty resolutions, its romances and alliances, its Orient Express and its Scottish castle, but it's a perfectly good formula, one that Dekobra may well have developed.

This novel has been filmed twice, and I'd love to see either version, but it seems to have missed out on the kind of Golden Age treatment I picture in my head.

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