Melville House’s name for its line of paperback reprints, Neversink Library, is not only apt (the idea being that these books are too good to sink into oblivion) but also loyal. It comes from Herman Melville’s novel “White Jacket,” where the ship on which the action takes place is called the Neversink, and opposite each title page in the new series is a quotation from that novel on the value of books that “pretend to little, but abound in much.”
Maurice Dekobra’s rollicking, elegant novel “The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars” (1925) fits that last phrase to perfection. Indeed, he himself was a kind of fizzy artifact. Born in Paris as Maurice Tessier in 1885, he invented his nom de plume after being fascinated by an Algerian snake-charmer (cobras, naturally). With chutzpah and a facility for languages, Dekobra became a high-powered journalist, wangling interviews with John D. Rockefeller and sundry Hollywood movie stars. He also wrote novels, mining his work as an intelligence agent during World War I to produce the international confection that is “The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars.”
In fact, however, our heroine only looks like a Madonna. Lady Diana Wynham, in whose veins runs noble Scottish blood of ancient vintage, is a New Woman who sleeps with whomever she pleases while crisscrossing Europe and Asia on deluxe trains. Prince Gerard Seliman, her French-born platonic admirer and aide-de-camp, who doubles as the tale’s first-person narrator, professes to be unconvinced that she “could ever be shelved anywhere in modern ethics.”
But the unshelvable noblewoman happens to be strapped for funds and about to lose her joie de vivre. (If you are the kind of reader who loses patience with a character who will consider herself “ruined” if she has to live on “ten thousand pounds a year,” this is not the book for you.) But there is hope. She might be able to capitalize on one of her late husband’s holdings: oil fields in Russia. This being the 1920s, though, Russia is under communist rule, and getting the Soviets not only to authorize development of the oil but to ensure a steady flow of cash to Lady Diana’s coffers will take formidable applications of tact and duplicity. Prince Gerard is just the man for the job.
Dekobra draws sharp contrasts between his chic Westerners and his crude but headstrong Russian villains. (To whet the reader’s desire to see Lady Diana prevail, the author portrays the Russian commissar she may have to marry as a sexual sadist.) But what really carries the reader along is Dekobra’s scintillating prose style, which comes through admirably in Neal Wainwright’s 1927 translation.
The book is replete with piquant descriptions: “We were almost alone on the terrace . . . looking over the orange marmalade of a tranquil lake which reflected, through millions of green needles, the dying rays of a setting sun.” And chewy bons mots: “I have reflected. I have broadened,” Lady Diana says about the institution of marriage. “I have arrived at an understanding of the trivial importance of passing infractions of fidelity.” And even rude quips: A Russian man’s “face is enough to turn skimmed milk sour.” Only once does Wainwright let the author down. “Life is a Russian mountain,” he renders one passage, “a sequence of ups and downs.” He should have known that “montagne russe” is the French term for “roller coaster,” a thrill first popularized by Catherine the Great, so this is one of those times when a literal translation will not do.
“The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars” was a bestseller in its day. It also had the honor of being banned in Boston. So not only does the novel “pretend to little, but abound in much,” it also gives the 21st-century reader a sense of the kind of book that used to be called a “racy French novel.” What a treat to have it back in print.
Drabelle is the mysteries editor of Book World.
THE MADONNA OF THE SLEEPING CARS
By Maurice Dekobra
Translated from the French by Neal Wainwright
Melville House. 259 pp. Paperback, $15