My First Sources

My initial curiosity about Maurice Maeterlinck's plagiarism of Eugéne Marais' treatise on termite life, The Soul of the  White Ant, was enough to keep me digging for more information. Of course, I wondered how Maeterlinck might have happened across his work. Let's face it, there was no internet in the 1920s and the two men lived worlds away from each other and they spoke different languages. Maeterlinck was in France, Marais lived in South Africa. First, I found that Marais' articles, entitled Die Siel van die Mier (The Soul of the White Ant) had been published in the Afrikaans language periodicals Die Burger and Die Huisgenoot, starting in 1923 and then in 1925-26 before it had been published as a book.

So, how would Maeterlinck read these articles?

Eugéne Marais
It is suggested that Maeterlinck discovered the articles (somehow) and was able to read them because he was of Flemish descent and could read Dutch. Therefore, he could have easily translated the Afrikaans to French.  Maeterlinck's version, The Life of the White Ant, was published in 1926, giving him more than enough time to plagiarize.

 

Then the story got bigger.

It was not just Maeterlinck's theft of Marais' work that interested me. It was bigger than that. Marais had committed suicide and the blame had been attributed to Maeterlinck because of the plagiarism.

Marais had been inconsolable after he realized the impossibility of suing Maeterlinck (and winning) and that he had come to accept that someone else would get credit for his 10 years of work. While living just outside Pretoria at the Pelindaba farm, Marais borrowed a gun, saying he needed to kill a snake on the property. First, he shot himself in the chest. When that was unsuccessful, he put the gun in his mouth. He died a few hundred yards from the farmhouse under the shade of a Karreeboom tree. It seemed significant for Marais to die in a place called Pelindaba. Loosely translated "Pelindaba" in Zulu means "the end of the business" or "the conclusion." (Strangely enough, Pelindaba was later the site of nuclear research facility besieged with controversy. It keeps getting weirder.)
Pelindaba Nuclear Facility, South Africa

The more I read, the more I realized what an interesting person Eugéne Marais was. Not only was he a naturalist, he was also a lawyer, a poet and a healer and so much more. He was a hero of the Boer people and an advocate of the Afrikaans language. He was know to have powers of mesmerism and hypnotism. He was a prankster. Children loved him and the ladies...well, they were drawn to him, too. (But more on that later.)  I have always had a softness for what I lovingly call crackpots. I knew there was so much more to learn about him.

Another side of the story.

There was an elephant in the room that added yet another dimension to the story. Marais' addiction to morphine wasn't something to be ignored. His struggle with addiction was said to be the impetus to most of his research about nature. He felt if he understood nature, he could understand himself and free himself of his dependence on morphine. It was this theory that drove him to explore.

There are those that argue that his addiction was the reason for his suicide; not the plagiarism. And that the plagiarism was the excuse given by those who felt they had something to gain from the notoriety of such a scandal and the attention it brought to South Africa and to the Boer cause. Was it fair to blame Maurice Maeterlinck for Marais' suicide without knowing all of the facts? There had also been rumors that the Maeterlinck scandal had enlivened Marais during his last years, made him feel in the center of things again. This is all very speculative, of course, but worthy of mentioning. While I will never know why Marais took his own life, I felt it was worth entertaining a few angles.


But I am getting ahead of myself.


 Before I could go on I felt I felt I needed to read Marais' book. I wanted to learn about termites and see how Marais expressed himself. The English version of The Soul of the White Ant was  translated by Winifred de Kok, a South African doctor living in London. She had taken an interest in Eugene Marais after to the plagiarism. She and her husband, writer, A.E. Coppard, approached Marais so they might translate and publish a few of his short stories.

Marais, instead, preferred to first publish his work on termites, which up to that point had only been available in Afrikaans. As a advocate of the Afrikaans language, he had made a policy to only write in Afrikaans, even though he had been raised to speak English and had been educated in London. Prior to the publication de Kok said that Marais had expressed much excitement in their letters about the translation. He was thrilled with  the possibilities of a wider audience an English version would bring to his work and the possible vindication it would bring him. However, he wouldn't live to see the book in print. To de Kok, his suicide made no sense.


At this point, I hadn't even decided I would write a novel. I had done that before. I knew what that meant. It's hard! It takes a long time! For now, I just knew that I had stumbled across something very interesting (to me, at least).  Whether anyone else would be interested was difficult to say. All I knew was that it was something. And whatever that thing was, it had dropped into my lap. Therefore it was me to decide what I do with it. I would just have to see where this would take me.



As I waited for the book to arrive, I did a little more reading about Maurice Maeterlinck. 

In my previous blog I mentioned that I was only barely familiar with the work of Maurice Maeterlinck. I knew that he was the author of Pelléas et Mélisande, a play that had been turned into an opera by Claude Debussy. I knew he was part Symbolist movement in Paris and that he was from Belgium. I had just learned of his songs by Zemlinsky.

Then I discovered Georgette. 

 

Georgette LeBlanc was an Opera Singer and Maurice Maeterlinck's lover for over 23 years. She and Maeterlinck were never married due to the fact that she was already married. She had been unable to get a divorce from her first husband, who she had left after he had gambled their money away and then to make matters even worse, beat her mercilessly. Georgette first heard of Maeterlinck while she convalesced in a convent hospital, recovering from her husband's final assault. She had received a copy of Pelléas et Mélisande from her brother. Right then and there, she decided Maeterlinck would be hers.

Already I could tell that she was a colorful character, a person I would like to get to know better. Luckily for me, she wrote about her life, extensively. Her first book, Souvenirs: My Life with Maeterlinck is a gem. A few days after I ordered Marais' book, I ordered this one. As a singer, I already had a collection Opera Singer biographies. So now I would have another one for the collection.

Fascinating account of the relationship between Georgette LeBlanc and Maurice Maeterlinck. 





And you may wonder, what about Maeterlinck? What about his version,  The Life of the White Ant? I wasn't ready to do a side-by-side analysis of the two books. At least, not yet. First, I wanted to gather information and get to know the characters involved. I hadn't committed to anything yet, much less writing a novel. At least, for the moment. I was only dipping my foot in the water. (In retrospect, that's such a Maeterlinck thing to say. He was always so fond of using water symbolically.)

 Soon, I would find  that I had stumbled upon something much bigger in scope than I first thought. While the plagiarism was the seed of the idea, it was only the beginning. I would soon be transported to worlds and people and places and events that were new to me. I would also discover very interesting connections to some well-known people of the era that I didn't expect. But meanwhile, another character was waiting in the wings, waiting to be noticed. One that would change everything.








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