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the Complete Review
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Louis Couperus

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To purchase Psyche

Title: Psyche
Author: Louis Couperus
Genre: Novel
Written: 1898 (Eng. 1908)
Length: 179 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Psyche - US
Psyche - UK
Psyche - Canada
Psyche - India
  • Title of original: Psyche
  • Translated by B.S.Berrington
  • This Pushkin Press edition also includes Robert Graves' translation of Apuleius' Cupid and Psyche (from The Golden Ass)

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Our Assessment:

A- : a compelling fairy tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Louis Couperus' Psyche is a fairy tale, based on the ancient story of Psyche. (Robert Graves' translation of the original story (from Apuleius' The Golden Ass) is included in the recent Pushkin Press edition of Couperus' novel.)
       Couperus offers a new and very different story. It's heavy on the symbolism -- but still a very good tale. Psyche is the youngest of the three daughters of "the old king, monarch of the Kingdom of the Past". At the beginning of the story she is still an innocent, still almost a child. She wanders around naked ("she is the Princess of Nakedness"), without any friends and not very close to her sisters. She has two small wings, but she cannot fly.
       Her sisters intimidate her. The eldest, Emeralda, is groomed to take power and goes around with her large retinue. The other, Astra, lives "in the highest tower of the castle", interested only in learning, gazing through her telescope to the furthest reaches of the universe. Astra is very wise:

But because she possessed all the wisdom of the earth, she despised all the world
       Unlike her sisters, Psyche is not certain of what her role in the world is. Where they have specific ambitions, she only has vague dreams. She is eager for adventure -- for anything, really, as long as it is beyond the stifling confines of the Kingdom of the Past. Once her father has died she becomes even more desperate to experience something away from this place.
       A sacred spider invites her to become one of them: "Become a spider like us, weave your web and be wise." But she can't imagine doing that:
       "But I live. I am young, I desire, I love, and I cannot bury myself in dust ... Oh tell me whither I must flee !"
       Her one love, and one escape is the Chimera, which can carry her and fly with her -- as she herself cannot. But the Chimera can't fulfil all her demands or wishes either. Instead an alternative seems to offer itself: Prince Eros, who already earlier sued for each of the three sisters' hands. He manages to convince Psyche that with him she can find happiness -- and she becomes the queen of his soul and of his kingdom.
       It looks like Psyche has found what might satisfy her, but even at that very moment her words suggest her inability to simply accept and rejoice:
       "Am I a queen ?" she said softly. "Am I happy ? Eros, do you love me ? Is this the happiness of the Present ?"
       For a while all is well and good -- "The pleasant days followed each other like a row of laughing houris" -- but temptation (in the form of the Satyr) is too much for Psyche and she sets off for new experiences. She leaves behind her a desolate scene:
       Sad at heart walked Eros, and all along his path the flowers now lay shrivelled. The brook was dry (...)
       A single dove was expiring at the marble basin.
       The strings of the lyre were all broken....
       All is sad -- Psyche, soon, most of all. "Emeralda reigns", and Psyche wants to renounce her princess's rights. She no longer walks around naked and she even allows her wings to be literally clipped. (No one could accuse Couperus of much subtlety in this book .....)
       Eventually Psyche returns to the Kingdom of the Past, going then to seek out the Jewel that her sister Emeralda obsesses over (and learning a lesson when she finally figures out what that's all about). Psyche also finds the more sympathetic Astra back at the castle -- who proves that a love of pure wisdom and the ambition to learn are misguided notions too:
       "Yes, I have gazed myself blind ! I have turned my telescope from left to right, to all the points of the universe. I thought to become the centre, the kernel of science, the focus of brilliant knowledge; now I am blind, now I see nothing more, now I know nothing more."
       Ultimately, of course, Psyche does find happiness -- though she has to go through quite a lot more to do so.

       Psyche is a remarkable sustained fairy tale. Couperus creates a convincing fantasy world, and despite all the abstractions made real (from kingdoms of the past and future to the spiders and the fantastic creature) and the occasionally heavy-handed symbolism it is a wonderful, magical realm. Psyche, in particular, is an appealing creation, as is the Chimera, and the two other princesses are also very solid characters. (Some others -- Eros, in particular -- aren't quite as satisfying.)
       The rich writing works well for this story: it is, undoubtedly, overwrought, but with this material that seems only appropriate.
       Psyche is a charming and often even exciting tale. Readers should be aware of what they're getting themselves into (see the quotes from the text above), but if they're willing to indulge in this sort of thing it can be quite rewarding. Recommended.

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Psyche: Reviews: Louis Couperus: Other books by Louis Couperus under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Louis Couperus lived 1863 to 1923.

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