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The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars (Neversink) Paperback – October 2, 2012

3.9 out of 5 stars 18 customer reviews

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The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
"The Nest" by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
A warm, funny and acutely perceptive debut novel about four adult siblings and the fate of their shared inheritance. Learn more | See author page

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

This may be the most popular book you’ve never heard of. French author Dekobra (born Maurice Tessier) was wildly popular between the world wars, and The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars (1925) was an international best-seller. Though largely forgotten since then, its quick-moving intrigue set in widely dispersed European locales—before the jet set, there was the train set—helped provide a template for a whole new genre. (In acknowledgment, Alan Furst gave the book a cameo in The Foreign Correspondent, 2006.) Its contemporary popularity owed much to the character of Lady Diana Wynham, the “madonna” of the title, a beautiful playgirl who makes no apology for her long list of lovers or her extravagant lifestyle. But the narrator is Prince Séliman, who serves as Wynham’s unpaid secretary while recovering from a nasty breakup. He’s a perfect gentleman, but that doesn’t keep him from enjoying the frisson of his lady’s hugs and kisses. When the instability of Sumatran rubber and Bengal oil ruins Lady Diana’s finances, she attempts to recover Georgian oil fields lost to Soviet nationalization. A high-ranking Communist official, Varichkine, offers assistance in exchange for a night in bed; Lady Diana ups the ante by extracting a marriage proposal. Go-between Séliman, not quite a pimp, is sent to the field where Varichkine’s mistress, “the Marquise de Sade of Red Russia” and another powerful, complicated character, lies in wait. The sexual politics will seem as odd today as the erotic overtones are tame, but this nutty mix of sex farce, spy novel, political tract, and bantering comedy is still a uniquely flavored treat. --Keir Graff

Review

“A rollicking, elegant novel … it 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.”
—Dennis Drabelle, The Washington Post

"Exquisite ... the kind of book that gets described as 'a delightful romp' in press materials, and that’s not an inaccurate description of a book that functions beautifully as both send-up of high society and globe-spanning adventure story, but the novel has a deathly serious core. The featherweight prose proves a brilliant set-up for the darkness that Séliman encounters when he’s eventually sent into the Soviet Union ..."
—Emily St. John Mandel, The Millions

“A tale M. Dekobra told so artfully that it tore through five editions like a sickle-bar mower.”
—S.J. Perelman, The New Yorker (1949)
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Product Details

  • Series: Neversink
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Melville House; Reprint edition (October 2, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1612190588
  • ISBN-13: 978-1612190587
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #674,930 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Maurice Dekobra?

His name is now almost completely forgotten, but in 1927 he published a novel called "The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars" that sold a million copies in France. (It was eventually published in 24 languages.) In 1928, The New York Times described him as "the biggest seller of any living French writer --- or dead one either." Fifteen of his novels became films. ("Madonna" was filmed twice.) Over his career, he sold 15 million books in 32 languages, and his kind of writing --- a slick blend of journalism and high-society intrigue --- acquired a brand name: dekobrisme.

"The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars" went out of print in 1948.

It's finally back. So let me introduce you.

Maurice Dekobra (1885-1973) began his career as a translator (Daniel Defoe, Jack London, Mark Twain). In the early 1920s, he was a journalist and foreign correspondent. His fiction reflects his training --- it's grounded in the news, is briskly paced and has an unusually tart point-of-view.

The plot, as these things go, is simple. Lady Diana Wynham is a London widow known for her beauty ("the type of woman who would have brought tears to the eyes of John Ruskin"). She is just as well known for her unabashed amorality. Presented with a list of her lovers, in chronological order, she has only one correction: "Excuse me, but they were contemporaneous."

Lady Diana is about to be ruined financially. Her sole hope of salvation is l0,000 acres of Russian oil land that her late husband, the English ambassador to the court of St. Petersburg, received as a gift from the government of Nicholas II. It is --- in 1920s money --- worth 50 million dollars.

The bad news: Russia's Bolshevist government has confiscated all foreign property.
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This book was a best-seller in the 1920's and 1930's, and made its author's reputation with international sales. Even Alan Furst, with his usual attention to detail in his novels about this period, has his characters reading this book.

It's worth reviving because it is fun to read! The characters are interestingly drawn, the plot -- which involves titled high society types from the US, England and other countries as well as nefarious Soviet characters -- has some delightful twists and turns, and the writing style is engaging, if more than a little over the top. It is a kind of neo-baroque which is hard to describe -- think Raymond Chandler meets Proust -- but fun to read.

Some books are the literary equivalent of gourmet meals, others of organic vegan style. This one, to borrow from Stephen King's description of his own work, is a Big Mac for the mind. You wouldn't want it all the time, but it's easy to see why even 90 years later it holds the reader's attention.

It's well worth reading.
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This beautifully crafted thriller/period piece is drenched in the atmospherics of the early 1920s and is driven by both compelling characters and a gripping plot. In giving us a fly on the wall glimpse into the decaying British aristocrat and the ascendant Soviet revolutionary, Dekobra vividly reveals the dark, intellectual and spiritual void at the heart of each. And he does this without a hint of didacticism or in any way drawing a moral equivalence between the degeneracy of the aristocracy and the unspeakable crimes against humanity by Soviet Communism.
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Reading it is just like watching a stylish old black and white spy movie with witty repartee and escapism. Following the adventures of Prince Seliman and Lady Diana across Europe and Russia, I learned more about the Russian Revolution and the subsequent oppressive Russian regime. While it does not fall in the category of great literature, "Madonna" never loses its charming, light hearted tone and is a very witty, enjoyable book.
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I cannot remember the last book that I did not finish but alas.... Was it that I couldn't relate to the characters? Was it that I really didn't care what happened to the Madonna of the Sleeping Cars? Was it that the writing/descriptive passages seemed so stilted? I just know that it was like putting a gun to my head every time I thought of returning to this book, and.... it came highly recommended so.... maybe it was just me.
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I loved this book in the beginning. However, about half way through it got bogged down when one of the characters got thrown into a Russian jail. From then on it was not fun for me; it took me back to the Gulag Archipelago, which was dreadful.
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The novel is wordy and pompously written. I was warned by a critic I rely on that the translation was poorly done and missed all the humor of the French original, but bought the book anyway. That was a bad choice. I do not recommend it.
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If you enjoy vintage mysteries you will enjoy this work.I had actually read the title in another period work.I searched for it on Amazon and was excited to see that it had not only been reprinted but was available as an e-book!
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