Saturday, May 26, 2012

Octave Feuillet's La petite Comtesse (1857)

La petite Comtesse is set in set in the world of country houses and hunting parties. An epistolary novel, narrated through the letters of the young hero, George, it covers a few months. It ends in the death of both the leading lady, the little countess (who catches a novelistic wasting chill caused by disappointed love for the hero) and of George, who after her death commits suicide in a duel.

This novel seems like a throwback to 18th century sentimental fiction. The rather melancholy, bookish hero resembles Goethe's Werther, the hero of the archetypical example of that genre. As in The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), the hero, clearly the most sensitive, aesthetic, and educated person around finds himself out of his element in the provinces.  A tragic (and sexless) love story ensues.

The hero of the Feuillet novel is quite indistinct. He has no family that we know of. His background and education are not described. We know that he is a bit of an antiquarian, gathering information about a ruined Benedictine monastery for some government commission for preserving antiquities. His friendship with Paul (his correspondent) is close but not fleshed out with specifics. His source of income (he is well off enough not to need a real job) is a mystery. His social status is clearly “gentlemanly”. (He can ride, shoot, and, while on the reserved side, can hold his own with polite, even aristocratic, company.) But it is made clear that he is not an aristocrat, and sees that class as obsolete.

The countess is a little more brightly painted.  A young and merry widow, she is the center of al attention, and her flirtatious high spirits give her a bit of a bad reputation. The hero is the only one to resist her charms, which eventually leads, of course, to her falling in love with him. None of this results in any hint of sex (or even kissing), and they only spend a few minutes alone together.

All this seems strange after decades of Balzac, Stendhal, and Gautier  – hundreds of novels that are acutely aware of social status, money, and a far franker exploration of love and sex. This is a throwback to an older sensibility, before the French Revolution, before the Romantic and realistic movements in art. Even George Sand, whose novels share a similar rural scene and a preoccupation with the sensibilities and weaknesses of the idle classes, is far more concrete in terms of emotional history, physical longing, and material status. In Feuillet, the sexuality is not even repressed.

Feuillet was quite popular and respected in his time. Here he seems alien form in his own time; indeed, with a very few changes in detail, the novel could as easily be set in the eighteenth century as in the nineteenth. It's hard to believe that this novel is almost exactly contemporary with Madame Bovary (1856).

George gets Romantic about the ideal life in his ruined monastery:

Oui, si j'avais vécu, il y a quelque mille ans, j'aurais certainement cherché parmi eux le repos du cloître en attendant la paix du ciel. Quelle existence m'eût mieux convenu

Yes, if I had lived some thousand years ago, I would have certainly sought  the rest of the cloister while awaiting the peace of heaven. No existence would have suited me better.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris (1843)

I’ve long wanted to read this long serialized novel of the Paris underworld, but somehow never got around to it. It’s both a wonderful and an awful work. At times, the turns of the plot, the illusion of gritty reality, and the delicious viciousness of the villains are delightful. At other times, it feels like Sue is on autopilot, shoveling descriptions and ill-conceived digressions at us at some much per word.

Les Mystères de Paris was one of the most popular books published in France in the nineteenth century, much to Balzac’s chagrin. A melodrama in novel form, true, but when it is at its best (especially in the first few books), the writing is far more vivid than any stage melodrama of the period. The characters are simplistic, yes, but some betray flashes of real individuality, the evil ones, like the one-eyed Chouette and the hypocritical notary Jacques Ferrand, and (most surprisingly) the good ones, like the cheerful and assertive seamstress Rigolette and the maladaptive Le Chouineur, a killing machine converted to the good side, but so deeply scarred that he is incapable of living in god society.

Most complex drawn of all is the hero, Rodolphe, who is the rich and gracious grand duke of a German principality, but who travels through Paris in disguise, a master of both Parisian low-life argot and of self-defense, foiling evildoers and comforting the oppressed. With a mixture of humor, cleverness, pity, anger, and melancholy, he is a far deeper character than I might have expected.

While the scenes among the proletarians, both virtuous and evil, give us a sharp taste of the language and milieu of the lower classes, when the action turns to high society – as it does all too often – the scenes seem contrived and inauthentic, a weak imitation of other bad “society” novels. The intrigues among the well born are rather dull.

Curiously. In this novel there are few representatives of the middle classes, with the glaring exception of the evil notary and his evil accomplice, a physician. Almost everyone else is either a nobleman or part of a nobleman’s suite or a proletarian. And in the era of the dominant Parisian middle class led by a king raised by a middle-class resolution, the gap is a little puzzling. The real mystery of this Paris is the absence of the most Parisian of classes.

Marx and Engels, in their book; The Holy Family and elsewhere, were very interested and very critical of this book, seeing it as an example of a sentimental bourgeois approach to the ills of society. When Sue steps back from the complex intrigue of his many characters, he is eager to preach reform – of the prisons, the hospitals, of money-lending, of charity, of the imprisonment of debtors, of orphanages, of divorce, of old age care. Curiously, all of these same liberal reforms, passed gradually over the next century a half served to undercut proletarian revolution and have, by and large, eliminated the worst depths of misery for the working classes depicted in the novel.

On the other hand, it is not very hard to see the fairy tale structure mixed in with the gritty realism. Rodolphe, like a Parisian Haroun-al-Rashid, wanders in working-class disguise among the poor righting wrongs, handing out money and furniture to the deserving poor, foiling those who would exploit the weak, and, in the end, saving all who can be saved. This is somewhat tolerable in that the prince himself is less than 100% competent, and has a bit of silliness and irony at times. But the implication is that the problems of the poor might somehow be magically resolved by the benevolence of the rich, the very rich whose fortunes are based not on some magic treasure cave but on, as Marx and Engels would note, the exploitation of the same labor pool that toils for mere sous in the garrets of Paris.

At one point in the novel, as Marx and Engels point out, an impoverished, overworked gem cutter at the end of his rope exclaims that if only the rich knew what he and his family had to suffer in their unheated attic, they would be moved to reform the system. My first reaction is a cynical snort. And yet, the consciousness of the sufferings of the invisible poor, so dramatically presented to so many avid middle-class readers by Sue, Dickens, and others, eventually does contribute to the eventual adoption of real reforms in western society.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Balzac, Le Cabinet des Antiques (1839)

This novella exemplifies a variety of typical Balzac tropes. Namely;

1.  The decline of the old nobility

The cabinet of antiques of the title, in fact, denotes the royalist salon of a French provincial town, a gathering of generally aged and mildly impoverished nobility and gentry. (A situation very similar to that in La Vielle Fille, written in1836.

Hosting the salon is the d’Esgrignon family, which survived the Revolution in slightly better shape than most emigrés, thanks to the efforts of a loyal and skillful notary, Chesnel. The old marquis and his still-attractive spinster sister hesd that faction, that is careful to exclude any recently-titled parvenus..

2.   The rise of the bourgeoisie

On the other side is a salon of the bourgeoisie and the new nobility, the people with real money and power in the department. The head of that party, Du Croisier , who made his money as a war profiteer during the Napoleonic era, once tried to arrange a marriage with the marquis’s sister. He was refused in a humiliating manner. Since then, he has looked to get his revenge.

3.  A young aristocrat from the provinces comes to make it in Paris,

The old count and his maiden sister have raised and spoiled a handsome young viscount, the product of a late marriage by the Marquis, Idle and mendacious, he gets into trouble in the small town, trouble that needs to be hushed up by Chesnel the notary at considerable expense to the family.  The viscount is sent to Paris, in the naïve hope that the restored Bourbon king will award a young aristocrat for his family’s loyalty during the exile. In fact, the court has other priorities, there are too many young noblemen in the same fix, and without a patron or money, the viscount doesn’t have a chance.

What he does have is stunning good looks and manners, and he is immediately taken up by the usually set of Balzac dandies – Rastignac, de Marsay. Blondet and the rest. He becomes the lover of a beautiful and fashionable older woman, the duchess of Maufrigneuse.  And like so many Balzac juveniles, he runs through the little money his family can spare (lavishing it on clothes, carriage, gifts, and gambling), and ends up in debt to Gobseck and other moneylenders, eventually forging letters of credit.

4. The battle for the documents

Chesnel has to go war against Du Crosier, who has kept close track of the viscount’s excesses, and sees a chance not only to ruin the d’Esgrignon family financially, his original aim, bit also to have the visocunt thrown in jail for forgery. Through a complex series of financial and maneuvers (something Balzac was quite expert in through personal experience), the notary saves the day. The viscount has to abandon his ambitions and is reckoned yet another failed comet of  Parisian  society.

In fact, after the unbending marquis finally dies, the viscount ends up marrying the wealthy niece of du Crosier, It's indicated that he returns to Paris and proceeds to waste his wife’s fortune.


Debt, forgery, bankers, usurers, and notaries, an older mistress, claims of nobility, warring salons, defy machinations  _ this novella is another retelling of the Balzac mythos of ambition and class insecurity.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Balzac’s “Un Drame au bord de la mer” (1834)

Set on the wild Breton coast, this short story is a precursor of later stories by other authors. More immediately, it had to be influenced by Prosper Mérimée’s gripping 1829 story, "Mateo Falcone'.

 Like that story, “Un Drame au bord de la mer” is about a father’s deliberate murder of his son. It too is set in a part of France (Corsica, Brittany) still outside the mainstream of French civilization, a place where the father feels entitled and obliged to serve as judge and executioner of an only child.

In the Balzac story, the narrator is the man from a pair of (unmarried, Parisian?) beachgoers, in a time and a remote (pre-railroad) place, where the outside world has barely touched. On the beach, they encounter an impoverished fisherman/beachcomber. Too poor to afford a boat, he makes a meager living harvesting the occasional lobster, crab, or fish that pass within reach. The narrator and his mistress are appalled to hear how little the Breton and his blind father live on (eating barnacles and buckwheat cakes, drinking wine only a few times each year), and pay him generously for his catch.

The story illustrates the contrast between the Romantic holiday view of the beach landscape (sea, sun, and sand) and the point of view of the locals, where the barrenness of the landscape means no firewood (the locals gather cow patties for fuel), and the narrowed choice between fishing (dangerous) and salt-harvesting (back-breaking).

The tourists engage the fisherman to guide them to an old stone lighthouse further along the beach. They pass on the way a strange hermit who sits impassively on rocks by the shore, staring out to sea/ “son immobilité stoïque ne pouvait se comparer qu'à l'inaltérable attitude des piles granitiques qui l'environnaient.” (his stoic immobility could only be compared to the unchanging attitude of the granite piles that surrounded him.) Forbidding, he has merged with the forbidding landscape.

We then learn the back-story, from the mouth of the guide/beachcomber, in a narrative-within-the –narrative that reminds me of Maupassant or Chekhov. It’s a tale of rough justice. The spoiled only son of a fisherman is indulged by his father and mother in spite of early misbehavior. He grows to be become a reveler, am idler, and a thief, driving his parents into poverty. The long-denying father finally gets plain evidence of the thefts, and determines to execute the out-of-control youth. He throws the tied-up boy, weighted down, off his boat into the sea. Soon after, the mother dies from grief. The father punished himself by taking up his vigil on the shore not far from where the execution took place.

This powerful raw story is a major departure for Balzac in many ways. It's narratively concise, almost laconic, and mostly outside the social sphere that is Balzac’s obsession.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Balzac, La Fille aux yeux d’or 1835

When I was a graduate student hanging around the library writing my dissertation, I met a fellow grad student working on a dissertation about one relatively minor Balzac novella. In contrast to my effort, which involved the whole history of Western comedy, his as based on one quasi-ogscure book. How could one fill a whole thesis on such a small topic? An imitation of Bathes’ S/Z? Now I understand why this novella could support a lengthy real analysis..

In its structure, La FIlle aux yeux d’or starts from the tradition of European “captive woman” comedies, a genre that includes Plautus farces, Spanish commedias, Mozart operas, Restoration comedies, and even a few Bob Hope/Bing Crosby film comedies. The basic plot includes a girl locked away and a young man who has fallen in love with her. Between them stands a keeper, whether a father, a husband, a guardian who plans to marry the girl, the master of a harem, amd/or their deputies (including duennas, eunuchs, and jailers. The props includes barred windows, fortress-like houses, armed guards, even snapping dogs. The two young lovers have communicated only in passing, thanks to the precautions of the keeper, but nevertheless are deeply in love. The hero finds way to surmount the barriers and gets access and/or runs off with the girl, by disguise, bribery, ur other stratagems, often involving a tricky servant.

This is the plot of over 50 plays, librettoa, and stories that I have read, and I suspect it is the plot of hundreds and hundreds more. These rescue narratives are often set in the world of Orientalist fantasy (take Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail). Most often they are set in the Muslim world or in a Spain that still has Moorish overtones (Barber of Seville) , but also in Italy, France, and/or England.

La FIlle aux yeux d’or embraces, then subverts all these conventions. The girl is surrounded with high walls, a duenna, Blackamoor servants, and snarling dogs, and seems to be under the protection of a Spanish noblemen residing in Paris == so much the tricky servant of the hero finds out. The girl falls head over heels with him ar once when she sees him in her rare accompanied walks in the park. They arrange to meet elsewhere in an orientalized bedchamber, where they make passionate love. He later, in an attempt to carry her off, breaks into the house

But the basic story end there. The bored young man (the dandy de Marsay) has no interest in marrying the girl; she’s just a greater challenge than the usual Parisian seductions. The girl’s attraction to him, it turns out, is the striking similarity between him and her keeper. And that keeper, it turns out, is not only a lesbian, but also de Marsay’s unknown half sister. Furthermore, de Marsay arrives just in time to see his half-sister murdering the unfaithful slave, stabbing through the chest.

Instead of the rescue narrative with traditional marriage, this is simply a cynical seduction that ends in death, Even the death won’t be avenged – it has gone an erotic dream world to a nightmare world, but De Marsay has no wish to get involved. When a friend asks what became of the girl with golden eyes, he ansers laconically

elle est morte … de la poitrine.

she is dead ,,, [Problem with] her chest


Thursday, August 4, 2011

Balzac, “Le Réquisitionnaire” (1831)

“Le Réquisitionnaire” (The Draftee) is a slight short story has some typically Balzacian elements: the provincial society west of Paris (here in Carentan, Normandy), the all-too-recent Reign of Terror, and its effect on the aristocracy.

The heroine, the widow Madame de Dey, has retreated to this quiet town, hoping that its innate conservatism will resist the worst of the Terror and allow her to preserve her estate for her son, who has emigrated to serve the exiled Bourbon monarchy. She receives a letter from the son informing her that he is in prison in Paris, caught in some secret mission, though he has made plans to escape and will arrive in Carentan in disguise as a draftee in three days.

The tale has strong elements of suspense, growing suspicion, and sudden reversal, In Balzac’s provincial society everything gets noticed, and the unusual purchase of a hare in the market almost gives the game away. All the town’s society, including the agent of the Terror (a young man interested in marrying the widow), conspire to keep the secret. In the end, after a skillful narrative twist, both mother and son are dead,

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Zola, La Faute de l’abbé Mouret (1875)

This is no Naturalist work. La Faute de l’abbé Mouret stands out as unique in the Rougon-Macquart series. It does not detail, as most other Zola novels do, the deterministic effect of social conditions and heredity on human action. Far from being guided an intensified realism, this novel is a symbolic romance, a kind of Paradise Lost, with the two main characters taking the roles of Adam and Eve in the Garden before and after the fall.

That garden, an overgrown Provençal folly built by some long-forgotten nobleman, contains in it an encyclopedic inventory of vegetations, a collection that no climate could ever support in one place. The hero is more Tristan or Tannhäuser than Étienne Lantier or Eugène Rougon.

This book combines ecstatic, mythic, High romance elements with an anatomical cataloguing the natural world. Virtually every imaginable fruiting and flowering plant, along with fungi, ferns, and conifers, is described. These plants provide s sensory overload of sights, smells, tastes, feels, and (sometimes even) sounds – Zola's typical synaesthesia taken to a new extreme. And the smells and tastes range from sweet to bitter, from wholesome to corrupt and fetid.

The garden/estate is called Paradou (hint, hint), and is in habited by a mysterious elusive virgin, at one with nature, a sylph named Albine. Outside the garden wall exists the real world, a dry, subsistence-level Provençal village. The hardscrabble inhabitants have little use for the poor parish church, to which the hero, Serge Mouret, a devout young curate with a delusive case of Mariolatry, has been assigned. The austere Mary-worship is unmistakably sequel. He eventually gets so depleted by his religious ecstasy that he falls into a come. He is transported by his cousin, Doctor Pascal Rougon, to the enclosed garden.

There Albine murses him with his growing enjoyment of the lush beauties of nature, outdoor exercise, and a near-complete forgetting of his religious ecstasy. In the labyrinthine garden, the plants offer up food for body and soul, and all gets sampled. Finally, it all leads up to a sexual liaison.

At that point, "Adam" is rescued from the "Garden of Eden." He reacts in horror to his experiences, and becomes even more ascetically religious, this time substituting his Mary-worship with a self-identification with the crucified Jesus. The rejected and bereft Albine kills herself, seemingly through an overdoes of calla lilies, in a bank of which he buries herself.

The borderline between Naturalism and Symbolism can be thin, and it is significant that these two literary movements are contemporary. It’s as if the intensification of the real world to the highest degree tunes form an objective sociology to a distorted magnifying glass, in the way that great twentieth century literature (Joyce, Eliot, Kafka) start form the intensification of everyday life and reach into myth and symbol. This tendency keeps recurring in Zola; and in Father Mouret it is at its most intensive.

The garden is presented as an alternative to the desiccated Catholisicim of Mouret. Albine explains her animistic faith to the waking priest:
Voyez-vous, lorsqu’on vit tout seul, on finit par voir les choses d’une drôle de façon. Les arbres ne sont plus des arbres, la terre prend des airs de personne vivante, les pierres vous racontent des histoires. Des bêtises, enfin. Je sais des secrets qui vous renverseraient.

You see, when you live alone, you end up seeing things in a funny way. Tees are no longer trees, the earth intakes on the airs of a living person, the stones tell stories. Fooolishness, really. I know secrets that would bowl you over.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Balzac, :Melmoth reconcilié" (1835)

This story is Balzac's sequel to the immensely successful Anglo-Irish gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). In that gripping but rather tediously overwritten novel, Melmoth has signed his soul over to the devil in return for along life and superhuman power. (The story is in the mode of the Wandering Jew, the Count of St. Germain, Joseph Balsamo/Cagliostro, Faust.) Wandering the earth, he tries to persuade someone to take over the bargain so he can die in peace. In addition, the original is a strong criticism of Catholic monasticism and the Spanish Inquisition.

Balzac's version takes place nit in some Irish castle or Spanish dungeon but in the contemporary Paris of the Comédie humane, where the protagonist, Rodolphe, is the cashier at the banking house of Nucingen, a war veteran who has enormous sums passing through his hands, but who takes home a modest salary.

We soon learn that ge is keeping a mistress – as ever in Balzac a crushingly expensive proposition. As he starts to pull off a swindle at the banking house, he is approached by the all-knowing Melmoth who shows him how his theft will be discovered and how he (Rodolphe( will languish in jail, unless he takes on the curse.power of Melmoth.

Faced with a treacherous mistress and seemingly inevitable ruin, he makes the switch. Melmoth goes off to receive last rites and die in peace. Rodolphe at first enjoys the new powers, including the ability to obtain money and sex at will, and the ability to read others minds. He soon becomes satiated, bored, then desperate to pass on the curse and die himself.

We see a series of passings on of the curse, for lesser and lesser goals, until it finally just peters out. The point seems to be that the triviality of Parisian life can't sustain the cosmic melodrama of the original story.

I find the best part of the story is the description of the love affair, how the mistress comes to expect ever treater luxury and the cashier is too dazzled, too pround, and too scared, to explain that ether is a limit to how much he can spend on her. This fits in with Balzac's doctrine (all too true in his own life) that luxury is purchased at a horrible price in anxiety and toil:
sous le luxe inaperçu de la plupart des ménages parisiens, reposent d’écrasants soucis et le plus exorbitant travail.

the unnoticed luxury of most households in Paris rest upon crushing worries and the most outrageous work

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Balzac, "Autre Étude de femme" (1842)

While there is no explicit connection between this story and Balzac’s (1830) "Étude de femme”, several common issues strike me.

First, the setting is in the dazzling high society of the most fashionable and titled Parisians. I must say that Balzac is at his most original when discussing the commercial classes, provincials, the artists, and the down-and-out, areas he doubtless more familiar with. I have a feeling that the glamour of the Duke of this and the Princess of that is a little too tinselly at times. Rastignac in the boarding-house and on the way up, for example, is far more interesting than the established Rastignac.

Second, the narrative approaches of the two stories are related. In “Étude de femme”, the narrator is Doctor Horace Bianchon, that raisonneur figure who moves lightly from high society to the poorhouse, an observer and scientist.. In "Autre Étude de femme", the narrator is also clearly Bianchon. (Furthermore, this work takes one of Balzac favorite narrative forms, a conversation after dinner (like “Une Conversation entre onze heures et minuit” and La Maison Nucingen). Several stories (both about unfaithful women punished) and a discourse follow, the story tellers and hearers are familiar names from the Comédie humaine. (de Marsay, Montriveau, Blondet, d’Arthez, Nucingen among others.)

The discourse is on the subject of society women, particular the definition of the term “une femme comme il faut”, the very specific society lady that Balzac is obsessed with. The pretext is that several foreigners at the dinner don’t quite understand the term. The days of the grande dame are finished, according to journalist/politician Émile Blondet., the days when a woman with the right family and fortune could do what she wanted. What has taken her place is the much more constrained “femme comme il faut”, a woman admitted to the best society, a woman of the greatest taste and grace, but one whose life is severely hemmed in.

The woman “comme il faut” may be of noble birth, but this is not a requirement. However, unlike a grande dame of the old aristocracy, she is held to the strictest standard of beauty and fashion.
vous voyez la figure fraîche et reposée d’une femme sûre d’elle-même sans fatuité, qui ne regarde rien et voit tout, dont la vanité blasée par une continuelle satisfaction répand sur sa physionomie une indifférence qui pique la curiosité.

you see the fresh and rested face of a woman sure of herself without conceit, who does not looks and yet sees all, whose vanity, jaded by a continual satisfaction, renders an intriguing look of indifference to her face.
For every aspect of her life, where she goes, what plays she attends, what clothes she wears, who she marries, who she visits with, this woman must obey a code – no less than for what lover she takes and the course of the affair. This code creates the fine borderline between the scandalous and the fashionably daring, a borderline repeatedly exploited by her lovers.

Little of this, it is made clear, is intended for the pleasure of the woman in question. The victor is always the ruthless young man (and de Marsay’s after dinner tale about the punishment of his unfaithful first mistress illustrates this), The code of the woman “comme il faut", it is made clear clear, is as prescribed as is that of an English “gentleman”. For the young French men, provided they have money, no such narrow code exists.

Balzac, "Étude de femme" (1830)

This rather minor story centers on a misdelivered letter, a declaration of love that gets delivered to the wrong woman. Eugène de Rastignac is the sender, intending that this love letter go to his current mistress, Madame de Nucingen. (The story antedates Père Goriot, so it has a rough, distant sketch of part of that affair,) But, having flirted the night before with the somewhat prudish but beautiful Marquise de Listomère, he sends it off to that lady.

She is flattered by the attention, and prepares to have the pleasure of putting him in his place. He arrives and informs her of the mistake, which turns out to be a blow to her vanity. In the end, it is not Rastignac who suffers from his blunder, but rather the Marquise, who has a "petite cries nerveuse."

Women in Balzac tread the line between accusations of looseness and prudery. The Marquise's dullish husband is clearly the kind of complaisant husband under whom she could easily conduct an affair – and the dandies have made there attempts. She is "vertueuse par calcul, ou par goût peut-être." (virtuous by calculation or perhaps by taste.) Like many Balzac woman, she is in a no-win situation. snd her virtue is seen as somehow pathological.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Le Parnasse contemporain (1866)

In 1866, France was in the midst of radical changes. The Industrial Age was in full swing, with new factories, railroads, steamships, telegraphs, all deeply changing not only the economy, but also the geography and the society of the France. France was increasing its grasp on Algeria and making progress in exploring and colonizing sub-Saharan Africa as well. German reunification and expansionism were presenting real threats to France, with a big war clearly in the offing. At home, conflicts between Napoleon III and liberals were increasing, as were tensions between the Church and secularist forces, all compounded by growing Marxist fervor among the working classes. The map of Paris had been redrawn by Haussman, and, as Zola paints it, the city, from its slums to its mansions, was in a constant state of change.

In the same year, the first edition of Le Parnassee contemporain was published, a collection of some 200 poems by 37 poets, among them the alredy famous (Gautier, Baudelaire) and the soon-to-be-famous (Verlaine, Mallarmé), not to mention a whole tribe of midrange poets of reputation, including Héredia, Mendès, Prudhomme, Banvile, Coppée and many others). The volume stands as a showcase of the best in French poetry at the time.

But those times of social change are hardly reflected in the poems. Leaving aside the efforts of Gautier and Baudelaire, most of the poems in the collection reflect an escape from the contemporary. There are scores of nature poem, with such titles as “L’hiver”. “Nuit d’hiver”. “Lune d’hiver”, “Journée d’hiver” .

There are a number of poems on classical mythology, and a few that range toward Hindu mythology. Many poems are about faithless mistresses, disappointed love, and a few about death. The diction, for the most part, is pretty modest in range, not at all reflecting the enormous vitality seen in the prose of the era, for example – there are almost no colloquial expressions, regionalisms, or foreign borrowings. Few of the poems are deliberately difficult linguistically, few tell a story, few have any humor at all. In terms of format, most are sonnets, and most are in alexandrines. Almost all of them are timeless in the worst sense, betokening a desire to avoid the complications are contemporary life.

I confess that much French poetry leaves me cold -- in contrast to English and German verse. But these Parnassian poems, with a handful of exceptions, seem extraordinarily bloodless and shallow – nor often clever.

One final carp: the word azur must occur in over one third of the poems, a bit of poetic diction that seems more at home in the 18th century, even as the sky in Paris was turning brown from soot.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Birotteau and the theater of high finance

When Balzac lays out the nature of a bankruptcy proceeding and, by extension, of all of the activities of high finance, he likens it to a theatrical performance.
Comme toutes les pièces de théâtre il offre un double spectacle : il a sa mise en scène pour le public et ses moyens cachés, il y a la représentation vue du parterre et la représentation vue des coulisses.

Like all theater pieces, it offers a double spectacle: there is a shoe aimed at the public and another show that is hidden, there is the performance seen from the front of the house and the performance seen from backstage.
In other words, there is a ritual performance for the consumption of the general public; the real insiders know that the reality is quite different, with special rules and a not easily apparent distribution of power. Woe to those like César Birotteau who might be tempted to believe that the performance is real. Fortunately, he has friends who know how the system works, and can guide him through the realities, make deals with the people with real power and observe the forms for the rest.

In a larger sense, the whole financial world is presented as a carnival show to lure the gullible. The apparently random chances in the money market are, Balzac repeatedly shows, the result of the backstage manipulations of the real masters, the bankers and the usurers. The show of probity and respectability from the financiers is just a show, while backstage ruthless greed reigns.

Du Tillet, the principal villain of César Birotteau, stage-manages the ruination of the perfumer by setting up a tempting but disastrous investment, while remaining out of sight. When he does encounter Birotteau, it is with the greatest feigned sympathy and the offer of financial aid, along with even more ruinous advice that is aimed at grabbing the one saving play for the perfumer, Anselme Popinot’s hair tonic business. He plays the part so well that Birotteau never really understand the cause of his ruin.

Birotteau goes to borrow to among others to the brothers Keller, the heads of a major Paris bank. The one brother, the onstage performer for the firm, is all smiles, encouragement, and graciousness, in his beautiful office. Birotteau is sent to the backstage brother, the one who runs the real operations of the bank, who, in a cramped dark office in the bowels of the building, is mean and uncompromising. Again front-of-house versus backstage

The idea of the dual realities is a forerunner of the theories of the 20th-century Canadian-born sociologist Erving Goffman, whose Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) elaborates a whole theory of the dramaturgy of social interactions. While the theatrical metaphor is commonplace, Goffman stresses several unique issues: One is the importance of the stage set (such as Keller and Du Tillet’s elegant furniture and trappings), and this concept of becoming successful by looking successful is a constant in Balzac, and well suited to his keen eye for superficial detail. For example, is so bowled over by Du Tillet’s surroundings that he is unable to analyze what is happening.

Another key is the near for teamwork among the performers to keep the illusion alive. The wolves the financial troupe in Balzac, whatever their individual relations, are happy to keep up the illusion, and not let outsiders into the game. More specifically, Du Tillet has to give lessons to his talkative front man for the swindle, in order to keep his performance credible and avoid over acting.

In awiser sense, most of Balzac’s Paris novels are based on the tension between an apparent reality of glamour and comfort, and an ugly reality – death, penury, debasement– lurking just beneath it.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Balzac, César Birotteau (1837)

Balzac's Histoire de la grandeur et de la décadence de César Birotteau is both a fairy tale of bourgeois virtue and an in-depth look at the details of French bankruptcy law in the nineteenth century.

As so often in Balzac, the minutiae of getting and spending are chronicled in numbers – from the first franc earned from a new cosmetic product to the detailed costs of Birotteau’s ruinous party in his new lodgings. We are led through the economics of the launch of a new hair elixir, with breakdowns of the expenses for supplies and packaging, the publicity costs, and the split between wholesaler and retailer. Above all, we see the brutal details of the repayment made by Birotteau and his family through the sweat of their brow.

This is something new to French literature, I think. You can see something like it in Defoe – this de-sentimentalization of money. In thus book, money is not acquired offstage, it is not just the by-product of some rents or bonds or the result of an inheritance, it is earned coin by coin over the counter of a shop. In fact, Birotteau’s problems start when he starts getting into vast non-tangible speculations, and tries to become a rentier rather than a shopkeeper.

Aside from the complex banking maneuvers. there is a detailed description of the financial ecosystem: usurers, respectable bankers, notaries, straw-men, bankruptcy judges. There a long section the current bankruptcy laws and their insufficiencies – a topic Balzac was personally aware of.

Ob the other side. the basic story is a pure fairy tale: the plucky (and club-footed) prentice/clerk Anselme Popinot, who saves the day and wins Birotteua’s beautiful daughter. is set against the evil and suave former apprentice-turned-banker, Du Tillet, who sets out to ruin the good-natured Birotteau, who knows too much about Du Tillet’s dishonesty.

If César loses his footing when he aimed too high, Popinot’s combination of hard work, careful spending, and a brilliant marketing and sales campaign manages to build a second fortune. It is clear that Balzac sees Popinot as a newer, savvier businesman than his ex-boss.

Incapable de mesurer la portée d'une pareille publicité, Birotteau se contenta de dire à Césarine : " Ce petit Popinot marche sur mes traces ! " sans comprendre la différence des temps, sans apprécier la puissance des nouveaux moyens d'exécution dont la rapidité, l'étendue, embrassaient beaucoup plus promptement qu'autrefois le monde commercial.

Unable to measure the scope of such advertising, Birotteau merely said to Césarine: "This little Popinot is walking in my footsteps!" without understanding the difference in the times, without appreciating the power of new business approaches whose speed and scope were grabbing the workd of commerce more speedily than ever before.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Balzac, La Vielle Fille (1836)

Les gens de province possèdent au plus haut degré l’art de distiller les cancans.
People from the provinces possess at the highest degree the art of distilling gossip.

This tale of a provincial marriage is set in Alençon, a sleepy, reactionary town sitting between Normandy, Brittany, and the Loire Valley. The pursuit of the old maid in question, an ignorant, silly, but well-off heiress takes the form of a political struggle. One of the two main suitors is an impoverished and graceful old-fashioned member of the old gentry, in good favor with the Royalist party of the Bourbon restoration. The other is a brash man of low birth who made his money supplying Napoleon’s armies while in Paris (and, we are lead to belive, conning it), and seeks to become the spokesman for the Liberal cause in a heretofore conservative town, dominated by the ci-devant nobility and the Church.

Several days each week, the old maid maintains a salon in her richly appointed mansion, a salon that is a time=capsule of pre-Revolutionary manners. She is the darling of the conservatives, being the most utter example of provincialism:
car elle s’était encroûtée dans les habitudes de la province, elle n’en était jamais sortie, elle en avait les préjugés, elle en épousait les intérêts, elle l’adorait.
for she was encrusted in the habits of the province, she still had never left it, she shared its prejudices, she espoused its interests, she adored it.
The two men duel for advantage, and the liberal takes possession through a combination of great timing and a horrid embarrasment for the old maid. Upon their marriage, he basically usurps her fortunes. redecorates the hosue (the latest bad taste from Paris replaces the old-fashioned bad taste), reduces her independence, takes a mistress. and climbs to power in the prefecrure. Ub rge oisusruve side, he revives the city’s clothtarde, insituting a spinning factory and reviving the moribund economy.

Marriage as so often in Balzac is a business deal, and a deal that an unworldly and sentimental woman is certain to lose at. Such deals often end up squandering carefully built-up fortunes, on the other hand they are a major engine of economic growth, or at least shakeup. Money in Balzac is always in circulation, and the strategies of prudence and even miserliness always end up fueling a maelstrom of new spending and redistribution.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Balzac, “Facino Cane” (1836)

This short story is a Venetian fantasy, reminiscent of the history of Casanova and not unlike Balzac's own Sarrasine (1831). at least in its heightened Italian setting. The narrator hears the story of the life of blind musician, who claims to be a Venetian nobleman with an infallible nose for gold, the hero of adulterous adventures, stolen fortunes, a prison escape, and sudden blindness.

Several points of interest: the escape from an impregnable prison is a trope of Romantic fiction, Casanova's famous escape over the roof (leads) of the Venetian prison may be the immediate inspiration. But the patient digging away with a primitive tool reminds me of that pan-European Gothic blockbuster, Charles Henry Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), a book that Balzac had recently written a sequel to (Melmoth reconcié, 1835). Of course, Dumas's subsequent Comte de Monte-Cristo (1846) is the most famous of the digging-out-of-prison stories, and such prison escapes or near-escapes are a staple in Dumas (La Dame de Monsureau, La Reine Margot, and L'Homme au masque de fer.)

The unusual device here is that the hero is clued into his (dead) predecessors' nearly-completed excavations by his ability to read Arabic graffiti left by a former cell occupant, a skill the hero picked up as the scion of a merchant family in the Mediterranean.

The nameless narrator is a poor middle-class intellectual, a scientist who lives among the working classes of the Marais. blending in well enough to be able to closely observe the working classes, which he does "scientifically".

Une seule passion m'entraînait en dehors de mes habitudes studieuses ; mais n'était-ce pas encore de l'étude ? j'allais observer les mœurs du faubourg, ses habitants et leurs caractères. Aussi mal vêtu que les ouvriers, indifférent au décorum, je ne les mettais point en garde contre moi ; je pouvais me mêler à leurs groupes, les voir concluant leurs marchés, et se disputant à l'heure où ils quittent le travail. Chez moi l'observation était déjà devenue intuitivel

A single passion pulled be away from my studious habits, but wasn't it even more study? I observed the manners of the faubourg, its inhabitants and their characters. As badly dressed as the workers, indifferent to decorum, I did not put them on guard against me; I could join in their groups, see them conduct business, and argue at quitting time. In me, observation had already become intuitive.
The scientific analysis of the working classes by a sympathetic intellectual -- this is the revolution of nineteenth century literature. He tells us at one point that the story of the blind Venetian is just one among many that the has gathered. Like Balzac himself, who could blend in with al ranks of society – as portrayed by literal invisibility in La Canne de M. de Balzac (also 1836) –, the narrator acts as a kind of "nobleman in disguise" figure, another staple of romantic tale-telling.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Dumas, Les trois Mousquetaires (1844)

Les trois Mousquetaires certainly has had the biggest impact of any 19th century French novel. Teh imahe of the four friends with crossed swords, tabards, and plumed hats, is unmistakeable. The novel spawned a plethora of after-products: Dumas himself massed a hit play out of it, and ether are been a stream of musicals, novel sequels and prequels, parodies, video games, a candy bar, and especially films– over 50 films in a dozen countries all based on the novel in some way of other, including: a cartoon version with Mickey, Donald, and Goofy: a German version called Sex Adventures of the Three Musketeers; a Spanish language version called Three and a Half Musketeers (no. the half is not a dwarf version of d'Artagnan, but rather a faithful dog). I assume that many of these films are dreadful -- and the previews for a brand-new 3D version I saw last week at the theater look like an especially

Fun note: in the 1948 Gene Kelly version, Vincent Price played Richelieu and the dapper Gig Young was miscast as the dull-witted but happy strongman Porthos.

I guess I'm too old for the Three Musketeers, as much as I loved it as a teenager. Yes, the story races along and the dialog is snappy, the characters vivid if somewhat one-dimensional. And the great set-piece, the long ride of the musketeers to save the Queen's honor. as they are picked off by the Cardinal's agents is as exciting as ever. Most of all, this celebration of male camaraderie and never-say-die courage is unmatched.

But the four heroes are, if you look at them objectively, a set of roistering louts. Contemptuous of –and ready to cozen – the middle classes, brutal to their servants, exploitative to women, blankly deferential to royalty, spendthrift, quarrelsome and generally thoughtless, and especially in the case of the "more mature" Athos, unpleasant drunks. In other words, they have all the charm of rowdy fraternity jocks or football hooligans trashing a bar.

Dumas's world is everything that Balzac;s is not. Both the Paris of Louis XIII and that of Louis=Philippe are full of dangers. treachery, and intrigues, but in the 19th century Paris, you can't get out of trouble with a rapier, a fast horse, and a loyal servant. In fact, in Balzac the characters most like the musketeers are exposed as the smooth louts and parasites that they are, from de Marsay and Du Tillet to Rastignac and de Rubempré.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Balzac, L’Interdiction (1836)

The mild eccentricity of the marquis d'Espard consists of living separately from his wife; raising his two sons to be honest, hard-working, and humane; repaying reparations to a family once defrauded by his father; and indulging modestly in scholarly pursuits. All of which makes him crazy by Parisian standards.

His wife, on the other hand, has squandered the considerable money he left her with; refused to be a mother for her two adolescent sons lest her true age be made obvious to society; and had a series of lovers now including Eugène Rastignac. Her aim is to have her husband declared incompetent through a legal "interdiction" and to have his remaining fortune managed in her favor.

This novella contains some of the typical elements of a Balzac novella, elements we have seen in, for example, Le Colonel Chabert. First and most typical is a scheming, social-climbing middle-aged noblewoman. Second is a relatively innocent if old-fashioned husband who is the victim of the wife. Third, there is a raisonneur figure – here two, a doctor (Bianchon) and a judge (Popinot). These two, as the professional mediators and the witnesses/arbitrators of the ugly, secret life of Paris, can see through the illusions of apparent wealth and beauty that dazzle others.

The two raisonneurs in some ways prefigure Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes in their ability to see beneath the surface. Bianchon quickly assesses both the real age of the marquise and her hidden finical desperation.

As Bianchon tells the (willfully) less observant Rastignac:
Crois-moi, les médecins sont habitués à juger les hommes et les choses ; les plus habiles d'entre nous confessent l'âme en confessant le corps. Malgré ce joli boudoir où nous avons passé la soirée, malgré le luxe de cet hôtel, il serait possible que madame la marquise fût endettée.

Believe me, doctors are accustomed to judging people and things; the cleverest of us confess the soul by confessing the body. Despite the pretty boudoir, where we spent the evening, despite the luxury of this house, it is possible that the Marchioness is in debt.
Popinot, despite his living in a stator of personal filth and disarray (a typical Balzac theme), is even more perspicacious. He briefly interviews the principals in the case, sees through the lies of the wife, and quickly ferrets out the honesty of the husband.

Add to this the fact that Bianchon and Popinot are among the few kind characters of La Comédie humaine. Rgey both spend much of their time helping the deserving poor, Bianchon with his medical skills and Popinot as a prototypical microlender.

But unlike the usual detective tale, the discovery of tehhidden reality comes to naught, The marquise and her allies, aware of the skepticism of the judge, pull levers to have him taken off the case and put into the hands of a sympathetic judge. Justice, as so often in Balzac, favors the well-connected. And the few honest countercurrents to the sewer of Parisian society are once again thwarted. This ain't Dickens.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Balzac Le Colonel Chabert (1844)

Many of Balzac's novellas deal with the Bourbon restoration (1814-1830) and the predicament of the heroes of the Grande Armée on their return to France or (if they do not return) on their families. In La Bourse (1832). for example, the widow of a Napoleonic naval officer and her beautiful daughter live in poverty, denied the father's pension. In La Vendetta (1830),the young hero (a captain from the disbanded army), dies from starvation, along with his wife and child, for lack of a pension and the difficulty of obtaining a position. Others such as the hero of the La Duchessse de Langeais (1834) manage to resuscitate a military career after the Bourbon's come onto power.

In Le Colonel Chabert, the hero goes even further – he is a ghost come from the grave. After leading the charge that won the battle of Eylau (1807), Chabert is buried alive on the battlefield and counted among the dead heroes. After emerging and being nursed by German peasants, he combines years of illness and amnesia. By the time he walks back to France, Napoleon has been exiled, and his young, beautiful, and now rich widow has married into the newly emergent Bourbon aristocracy.

His wife, one of a battalion of ultra-wily social-climbing seductresses in Balzac , does not want this haggard specter to ruin her life. By dint of charm and wiles, she almost gets Chabert to sign away his rights, until he overhears her treachery. His reaction, instead of making trouble, id to renounce her and run off. He ends up in a home for indigent old soldiers, while his wife continues her social career.


1. This story is a kind of Martin Guerre-like narrative, with the reservation that Chabert, whatever the initial impression, is no impostor, Curiously, the French film Le Colonel Chabert (1994) stars the inevitable Gérard Depardieu, who also played Martin Guerre in a movie. I haven't seen the movie, but plan to.

2. Derville is Balzac's honest lawyer of the Comédie humaine (he has a major role in Gobseck (1830) and witnesses the treatment of Goriot). He is the stand-in for the novelist, the raisonneur, as he observes the ugly realities of family life in Paris.

The Comédie humane is summed up – that annals of unpunished domestic crimes – in what Derville says to a young colleague, before retiring permanently from Paris:
Combien de choses n’ai-je pas apprises en exerçant ma charge ! J’ai vu mourir un père dans un grenier, sans sou ni maille, abandonné par deux filles auxquelles il avait donné quarante mille livres de rente ! J’ai vu brûler des testaments ; j’ai vu des mères dépouillant leurs enfants, des maris volant leurs femmes, des femmes tuant leurs maris en se servant de l’amour qu’elles leur inspiraient pour les rendre fous ou imbéciles, afin de vivre en paix avec un amant. J’ai vu des femmes donnant à l’enfant d’un premier lit des goûts qui devaient amener sa mort, afin d’enrichir l’enfant de l’amour. Je ne puis vous dire tout ce que j’ai vu, car j’ai vu des crimes contre lesquels la justice est impuissante. Enfin, toutes les horreurs que les romanciers croient inventer sont toujours au-dessous de la vérité.

How many things have I learned while carrying out my trade! I've seen a father die in an attic, without a penny, abandoned bytwo daughters that he had given forty thousand livres of revenue to! I've seen wills burned; I've seen mothers stripping bare their children, husbands stealing firm their wives, women killing their husbands, using the love that they inspired to make them fools or imbeciles, in order to live undisturbed with their lovers. I've seem women giving their eldest child tastes that would lead to his death, in order to enrich their love child. I can't tell you all that I have seen, for I've seen crimes against which justice is powerless. In summary, all the horrors that the novelists believe they are making up fall short of the reality.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Hugo, Les Orientales (1829)

This collection of 41 short poems is the great orientalist work of French Romanticism. While the Near East was in the air in the early 19th century, the chief influence on these poems is clearly Byron’s incredibly popular oriental poems, including The Giaour (1813), The Bride of Abydos (1813), Don Juan (1819-26)), and Mazeppa (1819_, the later of which inspired Hugo’s own poem with the same title and subject.

The first few poems celebrate the Greek war of liberation from the Ottoman empire, including the battle of Navarino at which the French fleet along with England and Russia crushed the Ottoman navy. The connection with Byron is also strong, as Byron died in Greece supporting the revolution, helping inspire European intervention.

A few early poems are on Biblical themes. Most of the other poems are daydreams of the otherness of the East, with images of sand and palm trees, scimitars and djinns, elephants and crocodiles, pashas and sultans, from Grenada to Constantinople.

But the poetry soon turns to the deep subject of much of orientalist art – sexual daydreams of the harem. The fantasy of sexually available beauties unable to say no recurs constantly. Add to that the spice of women of different races waiting to comfort the tired warrior.

The Eastern despot’s ability to demand submission from his women stands in stark contrast to the frustrations of the nineteenth-century Parisian, of which Balzac gives us example after example. While French women are sexually available, they also maddeningly slippery and fickle. In works like Ferragus, La Duchess de Langeais, La Femme de trente ans, for example, the unsubmissiveness of women is a torment to men. In La Fille aux yeux d’or, assort of harem is created in Paris, with a bitter twist. The desire for exclusivity and control in a culture of adultery is something unobtainable in the West, thus the temptation of the harem.

The last poem of Les Orientales entitled “Novembre”, is set in the fogs and cold of a Paris late autumn. The poet confesses the fantasy as an escape from the gray Paris sky. He dreams of the “soleil d'orient”, “la beau rêve d'Asie”, “danses des bayadère”. “éléphants blancs chargés de femmes brunes”, not to mention a few tigers and camels thrown in for effect.

The Napoleonic adventure in Egypt, and the French participation of Greek revolution, along with the North African adventurism of the Second Empire show that these are not just idle fantasies with no real-world implications. But in another sense, it’s overkill to accuse these voluptuous fantasies on a chilly day of being the main motivators of a thirst for colonialism that extended far beyond the Muslim world. The mediaeval fantasies that dominate the literature of the time time, after all, did not bring back feudalism.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Verne, Cinq Semaines en ballon (1862)

I'd always thought Verne’s books were published later in the century. But he was a contemporary of Zola and Flaubert. And while an age of engineering, world conquest, and scientific breakthrough is just barely visible in Zola, in Verne it becomes the whole point in Verne.

Cinq Semaines en ballon, published in 1862, recounts a pioneering (fictional) balloon trip across Africa, from Zanzibar to Senegal. At this time, while the coasts of the Africa were being taken over by the French and English, the interior was still beyond their reach. While explorers like Livingstone, Burton, Speke, and others had managed to explore some of the interior, many other explorers died from malaria, sleeping sicknesses and other diseases or at the hands of hostile tribes. The source of the Nile was in question until confirmed by Stanley in the 1870’s. Among the other discoveries by the balloon riders in the novel is the (fictional) confirmation of Speke’s theory that Lake Victoria was the true source.


1. This is a typical romance, a string of adventurous episodes, including breathtaking prospects, curious adventures, and near escapes from hostile man and beast. As with most romances, the incidents could be expanded or contracted or rearranged by the author, with the (somewhat blank) interior map of Africa as the only constraint, as we are pulled from jungle to grassland to desert and back again.

2. At the same time, it is full of anatomical factuality, about the specifics of ballooning (along with some innovations by our hero), about African geography and the history of its exploration. For example, a lot of prose is dedicated to the exact contents of the airship, including the precise amount of weight each person and item provide, along with the necessary ballast required.

3. What suffers is the characters – all rather one-dimensional. The trinity of balloonists is broadly drawn. There is the faithful, humorous, and agile British servant; the obtuse but trustworthy Scottish hunter/man of action; and the brilliant British leader of the expedition, whose knowledge of aeronautics, physics, geography, and ethnography gets them out of many a scrape.

4. The various natives of Africa as mostly viewed from a safe distance; they are portrayed as vicious, bloodthirsty, and/or credulous and simple. There is no real interaction with them, and a typical ugly racism of the time is rife. The sooner teh Europeans suppress these primitive natives, the book strongly implies, the better.