Book review: Eline Vere

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ELINE VERE BY LOUIS COUPERUS, TRANSLATED BY INA RILKE Pushkin Press, 597pp, £12.99

She's lovely, Eline Vere, a beauty with dreams and means and men who love her; but since she's in a poet's novel from 1889, you know already that she's doomed. She's not Madame Bovary, although she's drunk on romance and the hope of change and escape. She's not Trollope's Lady Glencora, either, although she's rooted in a formal world in a capital city among people who know about power. She's her own glorious, intolerable person, a woman whose soul is tangled "like the strings of a broken instrument", a dreamer who can't trust the real world even when she's happiest.

She's been in the rare books room for far too long, locked away behind a fusty old translation; it's past time to welcome her back, bright and alive in Ina Rilke's new version. We might also welcome back, a bit conditionally, her creator, Louis Couperus – a Dutch fop, of all things, a dandy who wrote wonderfully about the small things that add up to a person's fate, who can take you away to a small circle in a small town like The Hague of 100 years ago and keep you fascinated. He also makes you shiver and breaks your heart, but we'll get to that.

He's brilliant on the ebb and flow and fights of family life, between sisters, between generations; the same detail that absorbs his characters, staging tableaux in the drawing room, going for a country picnic, comes to absorb his readers, too. He's like a naturalist, making field notes on the upper-class home; he's sparing with the great images, although they're there: a sad girl tearing up waterlilies by the roots, the roots like eels in her boat. Yet there's always a faint prickle of alarm, a sense of what can't be seen, like a cold breeze catching on a bare arm. It makes the domestic into something electric.

Eline Vere will die from too much morphine on a night when she's desperate to sleep, but that's the end of her story, not the point of it; she's muddled by dope as she's muddled by life. She thinks she's ruined, but not finished. She longs for the romance that goes with limelight, violins and a plot twist just before the interval. She walks in the woods hoping to meet the baritone she's sure once acknowledged her from the stage. She chucks the fianc who comes with puppy-like cousins and country peace to study an impossible, irresponsible relation for signs of love. She has a talent for being far away when anyone offers her a future.

In this, class matters. She's not another Emma Bovary, the farmer's daughter spoiled by hopes of romance and then ruined properly by the haberdasher who wants his money; Eline Vere has means, connections, useful relatives, equals she could marry if she wanted and a talent for travelling. Circumstances don't crush her, despite the occasional gossip; it's the contradictions inside her mind and heart. It is Eline Vere who ruins her. Couperus is a fine, driving storyteller even when he's off telling fairy stories in some symbolist landscape as in the rather mimsy Psyche. He wrote Eline Vere for serialisation, so it has the energy of the great Victorian novels without the melodrama, something astounding spread over 600 careful pages.

He only looks like a tabby cat, one more neutered writing male. He's a "sensitivist", which seems to mean a realist who's heard of impressionism. His early poems were, I regret to say, called "Orchids". He has Yellow Book translators, he wrote fairytales with the same megaphone chic, all dcor and jewels, as Oscar Wilde. The Dutch think his books inspired The Picture of Dorian Gray, but the dates make that unlikely. He married, but while his wife was devoted, nobody thinks he was; he was, everyone says, queer.

Couperus was called a decadent when that was chic. He wrote the story of the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus, the one who married his gladiator instead of just living in sin, and the book was too shocking for the English. He was a dandy, his occasional overwriting seen as a kind of make-up, a man who went out declaiming his works in small-town halls in a near-soprano voice and fretted mostly about having the right flowers in the right vase in the right place on the stage.

His foppishness was a fine performance, but it wasn't the same as Oscar brandishing his lilies on a lecture tour. Couperus's mother was aristocratic, and there's a vein of stone in the books which sometimes breaks surface, a concern for "breeding" and what it does to you, staying "in your own set" where everyone has "the same views on morals and manners". He's no Henry James, he's closer to the ruthless social politics in the wonderful Edith Wharton, a writer from a class under threat.

Like Wharton, you have to understand: he's the resistance. He was born in Holland, a judge's son, and shipped out to Java until he was 15. He came back filled with horror at all the well-meaning people who kept asking: "Are you going to be a magistrate? Or an administrator?" He settled for training as a teacher so he wouldn't have to teach, and he wrote, furiously and constantly, for a living.

He didn't do the literary world; he didn't announce a personality and market it, he was famously reticent. And yet there was something in the mix of time in Java and time in the regulated manners of The Hague that produced a powerful personality on the page.

He grew up scared of murderers, men with beards, ghosts, dark staircases – and tigers. The tigers are the key to the man. Even when he's conjuring Dutch proprieties, all crystal and ruffles and calling cards, he's always aware of something else dark and unexpected, vague enough to be missed, definite enough to kill you. He makes you sense it on your skin as you read.

Sometimes, as in Ecstasy, it's the notion that what we see and do is just a symbol of some truer, hidden life that only a few people know how to live; but Couperus isn't preaching. His high-minded lady is entirely fed up with being high-minded, when what she truly wants is to get magnificently laid.

Sometimes, as in The Hidden Force, it's the alien ways in an eastern colony that seem to take a terrible revenge on the colonial bosses; unless, of course, it's entirely the fault of those bosses for standing, ignorantly, in the way of forces they can't even imagine. You feel they'd carry on the tea party during a tsunami, because they didn't know the word.

The Hidden Force is in dire need of a brilliant new translation, but what we've got in English is already remarkable. A decent, blokish colonial administrator falls apart – decline and fall is Couperus's favourite plot – in a Java he doesn't begin to understand. He wants things to be right, not realising which wrong things may be holding together a whole society.

He's puzzled by his senses, by his wife's affairs, by the drowning heat, by a sense of corruption, and most of all by the things he cannot see: the tigers in his mind. Then all these otherwordly things turn physical and immediate. His young wife, alone in the bath, is suddenly stippled with bright red juices that are spat out of the air. Stones fly, glasses break. The administrator, naturally, mounts his defence: he wants a proper, rational report on forces that are a world beyond reason.

There's no better account of the deep colonial unease that underlay the formal manners, the careful ways of colonial masters; and the white-coated figure who haunts the story, the madji, begins to seem a political being, the start of resistance, the force that will eventually send the Dutch packing.

But there's another way of reading all this: the boy Couperus grew up in this world, and the book is his experience of a lifelong unease for a time in an extraordinary place. The unease is the subject; it will be just as real in a Dutch drawing room.

Very often, it's fate which gets the blame: fate as brute. Couperus's fatalism is a complicated business because his characters are mostly rich enough, connected enough to make the wrong choices; but as one armchair philosopher says in Eline Vere, free will is just "the outcome of hundreds of thousands of previous so-called chance occurrences". Fate has a history, and Couperus is writing it. He's also, in this fluent new version, wonderfully readable.

Rediscovered novels usually make you realise why they were lost in the first place, but Eline Vere is an exception: a pleasure we've missed for far too long.

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