Monday, July 18, 2011

Elias, or The Struggle with the Nightingales by Maurice Gilliams

First off, I am somewhat puzzled by the lack of interest in this book. On LibraryThing, I seem to have the only English translation, that being the one issued by Sun and Moon Press in 1995. Its representation in the original Dutch isn’t overwhelming either: there are 42 copies noted, and with an average rating of two and a half stars (it fares better on Amazon). Now, the back of my copy indicates that this semi-autobiographical novel, the first of a trilogy, is widely read in Belgium and Holland, and yet I find it somewhat strange that Sun and Moon describes the book as a “children’s classic”. Unless your child has the uncheerful aspect of a diminutive Ingmar Bergman, I just can’t see this as a beloved children’s book.

Elias is a coming of age story, a short episodic novel about the life and impressions of a twelve year old boy living on a country estate with his mother (his father is, curiously, absent for most of the book) and a variety of aunts, uncles, and cousins. His strongest attachment is to a cousin four years his senior, a self-willed young man named Aloysius, who neglects his studies, and pushes back against the stifling and hypocritical adults of the household. He and Elias sleep in the same bed, and share their sense of isolation, making small paper boats which they set loose in a small brook on the estate. In a pivotal moment early in the book, following a creepy family party in which some of the children are made to act out the roles of two recently dead children, Aloysius leads Elias to a clearing in the woods, where they meet two young girls and spend the night engaged in dancing, singing, and other mysterious rites, wherein Elias feels “searching lips come and burst into blossom on (his) hammering temples.”

After this nights revelry, Aloysius fades into the background of the story for a while, eventually returning to boarding school, where his failure to engage with his studies will have consequences. Elias focuses on the behaviors of his older relatives, particularly his aunts, the strict pedagogue Theodora; Zenobia, who fights with and frets over the free willed Uncle Augustin; and Henrietta, with the long blonde hair, addicted to pills, who is going mad and to whom Elias has an awakening erotic attraction. There is an ancient Grandmother, wheeled from room to room, and other children who are largely silent and unseen. Elias’ only other intimate is his cousin Hermione, “very nervous, thin, transparently pale, and given to sudden crazy ideas.” How Edward Gorey missed out on illustrating this book, I can't imagine.

The narrative is made up of young Elias’ impressions of the people and events around him. He sits with his Grandmother and muses on the fact that what she sees through her dimmed eyes, and her memories of the estate, are so very different from his own. He muses on her inevitable death (death, too, is a preoccupation of the book: in one episode, he follows Aloysius through the night to stand outside the window of a villager as his family and neighbors sing his wake, with Aloysius singing along silently for the soul of the stranger) and the doings of his crazy Aunt Henrietta. He is troubled by her, not least erotically. He goes to his room, but cannot sleep:

This is what the speechless stone walls of the room are teaching me tonight. They, too, die to nothing behind the outer shine of what they hide in their denseness. You can bruise them with hammer-blows, stick wallpaper on them at whim, soil them with ink spots in childlike revulsion. They will keep their secret, even if you were to destroy them stone by stone. With almost microscopically small letters I write on them: Lucifer’s regal name. I cannot immediately express in words what I mean by it; it does not matter anyway. I go to sleep, at peace again. I sin of my own free will, fully conscious of what I am doing, to placate the monsters of my imagination.

Aloysius’ obstinate refusal to apply himself at school (and at home, under Theodora’s punishingly sadistic gaze) means he will be shipped off to join the navy. In turn, a trunk materializes, and Elias’s mother demurely packs it under the harsh eyes of Theodora. As they get the carriage ready to transport Elias to the school about which Aloysius has told him such horror stories, later recanted - “it won’t be bad for you” - it is decided that it is an opportune time for Theodora to shoot the estate’s ailing old dog. Aloysius tears apart his rosary, tossing the little wooden beads into the brook and letting the cross be buried in the sand: later Elias searches for it in vain. He finds the swampy basin where the paper boats have come to their end, without ever having reached the sea. As he rides off in the carriage, Elias has the heartwrenching realization of the universal adolescent: “I have to choke back my anger until I feel sick; I cannot understand the need for this - why does it have to be so sad, and so unjust?”

Maurice Gilliams made his mark as a poet, and there is a real lyricism in this book. It forms the first portion of a trilogy, although it doesn’t appear that Sun and Moon was able to complete publication of the additional volumes. It would be a precocious child who found satisfaction in the bitter and fatalistic page of this “children’s classic”, (although it rivals The Catcher in the Rye in its portrayal of the hypocrisy of the adult world) and while the narrative flows rather languorously, with minimal dialogue, I found this to be an affecting and engaging, if dark, coming of age story.

(No product link, as the Amazon page for this product is remarkably screwed up. I wouldn't recommend ordering from there.)


  1. I had never heard of this book (unsurprisingly, for a short searching the net has shown that not a single book by this author is currently available in any french-language edition, although it seems two volumes of his poetry were published in France around 1960, and one numbered edition of a translated Elias ou le combat avec les rossignols was printed in Belgium in 1965)... however, I too, judging from your review, am delighted with imagining what Edward Gorey would have made of it!

  2. There seem to be a few copies of the English edition available on Abebooks..

  3. New copies still available at Small Press Distribution:

  4. I am sorry to say that the translator, André Lefevere, died within a year of the publication of this book. I don't believe there were any plans to find another translator to take his place, although one might make some inquiries with Green Integer Books (which was formerly Sun & Moon Press). It's a great pity altogether.