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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Twenty-One Days of
a Neurasthenic

Octave Mirbeau

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To purchase Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic

Title: Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic
Author: Octave Mirbeau
Genre: Novel
Written: 1901 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 303 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic - US
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic - UK
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic - Canada
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic - India
Les vingt et un jours d'un neurasthénique - France
Nie wieder Höhenluft - Deutschland
  • French title: Les vingt et un jours d'un neurasthénique
  • Translated and with a Preface by Justin Vicari

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Our Assessment:

B : mishmash of stories, but with a nice sharp edge to it

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 10/5/2001 Burkhard Scherer
Publishers Weekly . 22/6/2015 .
Die Welt . 7/10/2000 Manfred Flügge

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ganz frisch steht es da, genau hundert Jahre nach seinem ersten Erscheinen, in unbekümmerter Modernität. Denn Mirbeau schert sich nicht um die Romangesetze, sondern verwirbelt bestrickend die literarischen Genres, die er von der Satire bis zum Sittenbild à la Dickens, von der einfühlsamen Erzählung bis zur Haudrauf-Theaterkritik souverän beherrscht, und transportiert darin widerborstig seine politische Agenda." - Burkhard Scherer, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Vicari's translation is airy and accessible, retaining the endless ellipses of the original French text. While the modern reader might not appreciate every subtlety of Mirbeau's broadside against his society, its essential targets of corruption and cruelty remain timeless." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Das ist alles sehr disparat und unproportioniert, also antipodisch zur abgezirkelten Schreibweise von Flaubert. Es hat keinen Schwer- und keinen Tiefpunkt, auch keinen roten Faden, ist nicht modern oder postmodern, aber doch eine ästhetische Provokation, die für heutige Projekte anregend sein kann, wenn man, wie der Ich-Erzähler dieses Kur-Romans, nicht weiß, ob das Jahrhundert verrückt ist oder man selbst." - Manfred Flügge, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic finds narrator Georges Vasseur doing what is expected of him in August, even if his enthusiasm for going with the flow is limited:

I am traveling, which bores me tremendously, and I am traveling in the Pyrenées, which turns my general boredom of travel into a heightened form of torture.
       He travels to a city identified only as X, a city that exists solely for tourism, a place where: "there are neither streets, nor houses, nor native occupants, only hotels, seventy-five hotels". Our neurasthenic narrator isn't quite on a cure in this pseudo-resort-town -- cynical from the start, he makes quite clear he couldn't possibly find anything restorative in this kind of environment -- but suggests a good way of whiling away his time and ours would be in: "introducing you to some of my friends, some of the people with whom I rub elbows here, all day long".
They're like most people, some grotesque, others merely repugnant; in short, perfect scum whom I would not recommend young ladies to read about.
       Nominally a novel, Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic barely patches together its many disparate stories -- episodes from the lives of a large cast of characters that Vasseur/Mirbeau parade here.
       It is a work of its times, populated by actual figures and with current events often addressed -- notably the (not yet concluded) Dreyfus affair.
       Translator Justin Vicari explains in his Preface that he tried to: "build the explanation of references into the text" in some cases, and there are also some endnotes, but Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is packed with real-life figures, references, and allusions and the line between fact and fiction is often a thin and wobbly one. It is a text that lends itself to far-reaching exegesis; as is, contemporary English-reading readers are left missing much of the background that would be helpful in understanding just how sharp and deep Mirbeau's depiction goes. To take just one chapter -- VI -- Georges Leygues was very much the politician described here (he would go on to very briefly serve as prime minister) and, for example, the Comédie-Française really did burn down in 1900 (though Leygues was surely not quite as directly responsible for that as Vasseur/Mirbeau claim). The critique and comic presentation of the full-of-himself know-it-all/do-everything politician is amusing even without greater familiarity with the background of this real figure -- "I am gifted with the sort of moral levitation which lifts me up and lets me soar above petty, trivial things ..." -- but surely many of the details are lost.
       Nearing the end of his stay, Vasseur complains about: "all those poor, ridiculous or miserable bastards who did not distract me from my ennui for one second", but he's exaggerating here, having found constant and repeated distraction -- even if often only the sort to complain about. He revels in this broad mix of characters, and what goes for one goes for many:
His pompous stupidity, and his ego all out of proportion to his talent, are always an endless source of amusement.
       Many of the stories are related in conversation, but Vasseur/Mirbeau occasionally resort to what amounts to simple transcription, allowing some of these characters to tell their stories or make their confessions. These range all over the place, giving Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic a constantly straying feel -- a critique of the times and society the overarching theme, but Mirbeau going at it from oh so many angles.
       What makes the book is Mirbeau's sharp invention and pen. The absurdities he imagines are often wonderfully conceived, and beautifully turned. So for example, there's American millionaire Dickson-Barnell who finds no joy in his great wealth. Even his cigars are made of gold leaf -- "It occurred to me that smoking gold would be the height of luxury", he explains -- but even he has to admit: "it's the worst thing in the world, my dear sir ... It's absolutely unsmokeable..." So far, so good, and that's amusing enough, but Mirbeau doesn't leave it at that:
     Again, he shrugged in such a broadly demoralized way that the entire universe seemed to be collapsing around him ... Then he said, sighing and dragging out every syllable in a tone whose deep misery cannot be adequately represented on the page: "Everything -- alas ! -- is unsmokeable ..."
       Another story has old Baron Kropp wanting to give the ultimate symbol of his love to his mistress, Snowball -- a ring forged from iron painstakingly collected from his blood ("They opened and drained my veins to extract it ..."), a unique token. But, of course, in Mirbeau's telling, Snowball isn't one to quite properly appreciate such romantic gestures. The story is pitch-perfect in its over-the-top absurdity and dark, deflating final turn.
       "Books are where ideas go to die", one of the characters quotes another, but Mirbeau does his best to stimulate continued engagement in his own work. Yes, Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is almost entirely critical and cynical of fin de siècle French society and the politics (and art, etc.) of the day, but, despite his occasional complaints, Mirbeau's protagonist practically revels in it too. Snidely, even cruelly -- but also buoyantly: even three weeks in such company won't sink him or pull him under.
       Vicari occasionally (over)reaches in trying to capture Mirbeau's tone (and the varied voices on display here), but has (re)produced a lively volume that is, for all its long-forgotten references and allusions, still an enjoyable read today. And in what is admittedly a large and uneven pile of stories there are some real, memorable gems -- of invention and expression, too.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 August 2015

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Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic: Reviews: Octave Mirbeau: Other books by Octave Mirbeau under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Octave Mirbeau lived 1858 to 1917.

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© 2015 the complete review

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