Saturday, December 12, 2009

La Fortune des Rougon: Winter in Provence

The first book in Zola's Rougon-Maquart series, La Fortune des Rougon is also one of Zola's earliest novels, surprisingly (to me) fully conceived, carefully written, and masterfully-structured.

Unlike Balzac’s Comédie humaine, the overall plan of the series is sketched out in this first book, which introduces this complex family, a score of its members, and a hint of the obsessions of both the characters and Zola himself.

There are two main narrative lines: The story of the youth Silvère, an apprentice carriage-maker and republican idealist and his young love Miette, a servant-girl at a vegetable farm; the second is the resistible and sometimes comical rise of Pierre Rougon as he goes from being the son of a peasant to the most prominent man on the small Provençal city, the fictional Plassans (a version of Zola’s native Aix-en-Provence.

First, the lovers’ plot. I had not expected that the master satirist/detailed observer Zola could write so lyrically and wondrously as he does in the first section. Silvère and Miette, both orphans and in dire circumstances, meet after hours and secretly in an old graveyard, now converted to a lumberyard. They hold on to each other with desperate (unconsummated) love.

Most of the chapter has these two very young lovers – he is around 18, she is 14, as I remember – literally walking as one through the beauties of the frosty landscape outside the town. Both are wrapped n Miette’s capacious woolen “pelisse,” a custom, we are told, for wooing couples in the South of France. Muffled and hooded in the cloak, they are unidentifiable, free from scandal.

They are clutching to each other fro warmth, both body warmth and the warmth of affection, something they otherwise lack in their lives. They shuffle along as one in the folds of the pelisse, losing all human form.

They wander by the river, fields and woods, all dimly lit and magical:

“Par cette nuit de décembre, sous la lune claire et froide, les champs fraîchement labourés s’étendaient aux deux abords du chemin, pareils à de vastes couches d’ouate grisâtre, qui auraient amorti tous les bruits de l’air. Au loin, la voix sourde de la Viorne mettait seule un frisson dans l’immense paix de la campagne.”

(On this December night, under a clear, cold moon, the freshly plowed fields stretched out on both sides of the road, like vast layers of grayish cotton, which would deaden all noises in the air. Far away, only the muffled voice of the Viorne added a tingle to the immense peace of the countryside.)
But the idyll is soon interrupted by the (anticipated) arrival of ghostly columns of rebels, supporters of the Republic, both peasantry and working-class rising defend it, singing the Marseillaise. Like a catalog of Homeric heroes, Silvère describes to Miette each contingent as it passes by. From neighboring town and village they march, each carrying what weapons they can gather: carbines for the poachers and smugglers, old blunderbusses and muskets for tradesmen, axes for the lumbermen, scythes for pitchforks by the peasants.

The chapter ends with Silvère joining the ranks, and Miette ending up taking the standard, becoming a kind of mascot for the troops, who march on into Plassans.

The dreamlike nature of this chapter is reinforced by its lack of specificity in terms of the wider world. Which of a number of uprisings in French history could this be? We are given no clear idea yet, though we’ll soon enough get a complete context.

The night, the cold, the former graveyards (from which bones still occasionally emerge), and the ghostly army all point toward a tragic ending for the two lovers. And of them, we still know very little beyond what happens in the few hours of the events of this chapter.

Zola suspends the story at this point, to fill in 50 years of retrospective narrative. We won’t learn the lovers’ fate until much later in the book. The dreamy beginning is impressively contrary to (my) expectations.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Paris in the rain

Balzac’s ability to describe a lively Paris street scene perhaps owes something to such 18th century works as Rétif de ka Bretonne’s Nuits de Paris (1786), the eye for details, the robust energy, and the keen awareness of class distinctions are among the best features of his writing.

Take, for example, a scene from Ferragus, where the driven amateur detective Maulincour gets caught in a Paris downpour, “une de ces belles pluies…dont chaque goutte fait cloche en tombant sur les flaques d’eau de la voie publique.
(one of those beautiful rains…each drop of which peals like a bell while falling on the puddles in street.)

A Parisian “foot-soldier” is forced to find shelter, either in the shops or café (if he has the money to spend) or else under a porte cochère “asile des gens pauvres ou mal mis” (asylum for the poor and the ill-dressed).

Balzac once again presents himself as a” painter in words” since the actual painters fall short: “Comment aucun de nos peintres n’a-t-il pas encore essayé de reproduire la physionomie d’un essaim de Parisiens groupés, par un temps d’orage, sous le porche humide d’une maison ? “

(Why hasn’t one of our painters yet tried to reproduce the physionomy of a swarm of Parisians grouped, by stormy weather, under the damp porch of a house.)

He then describes the dreaming/philosophical pedestrian who enjoys the beauty of the rainfall, “les tourbillons d’eau blanche que le vent roule en poussière lumineuse sur les toits “ (the whirlpools of white water that the wind rolls in the luminous dust on the roofs.)

There is the chatty pedestrian, who complains while talking with the (female) porter; the porter herself, who leans on her broom like a grenadier on his rifle, the penniless pedestrian, who doesn’t worry about his rags getting dirty as he leans on the wall; the “scientific” pedestrian who tries to read, without much success, the posters on eth wall; the laughing pedestrian, who makes fun of those who get soaked on the street; the silent pedestrian who studies all the windows on the street; the hard-working pedestrian, hefting a bag or a box, interpreting the rain in terms of profit and loss; the friendly pedestrian; finally, the true Parisian bourgeois, who always prepared, has brought his umbrella.

“Selon son caractère, chaque membre de cette société fortuite contemple le ciel, s’en va sautillant pour ne pas se crotter, ou parce qu’il est pressé, ou parce qu’il voit des citoyens marchant malgré vent et marée, ou parce que la cour de la maison étant humide et catarrhalement mortelle, la lisière, dit un proverbe, est pire que le drap.”

(each member of this chance society, in accordance with his character, contemplates the sky, leaves leaping to avoid getting dirty, or because he’s ina hurry, or because he sees others walking in spite of the wind and the tide, or because the courtyard of the house and deadly for catching colds, the list, says a proverb, s worse than the cloth. [which means, I gather, better to be in the midst of it than hanging around on the edge.])

A sudden cross-section, in terms of class and temperament, comes together and quickly disperses like a passing shower.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


Ferragus (1834) is one of the novellas in Balzac’s short Histoires des Treize series, and, I think, the least well known of the three. These three works have in common the notion that behind the workings of Parisian society there lurks a mysterious secret society, made up of young aristocrats and at least one master criminal, that has the ability to pull strings, both official and illicit, to get what its members want. All this is rather non-explicit: we know the names only of a few members of the Thirty, and the precise nature and mode of operation of the group is murky.

A key member of the group is Ferragus, a master of disguise and a criminal. He is also known by many other names, and is wanted by the police. He moves from residence to residence, and among other disguises, appears in polite society as de Funcal, a rich Portuguese gentlemen under the protection of that country’s embassy.

Uncovering the mystery of Ferragus and what he wants is the key narrative structure of this story, which uses three separate “detectives, “ two of whom lose their lives.

The opening is typical Balzac readers. In the early evening in winter, a young man of fashion, a flâneur, is walking in a rather seedy section of Paris. He finds himself following a woman who he eventually identifies as “the most beautiful woman in Paris,” an untouchable young wife for whom he has a platonic crush. He is amazed that this elegant creature might be found alone at this hour in this filthy neighborhood, so he quietly follows her. She enters a yellowing, four-story tenement. The assumption is that this seemingly virtuous woman is having an adulterous assignation in thus slum.

We gradually learn the identity of the young man, Auguste de Maulincour, a young officer, and we also learn about the lady, Madame Jules Desmarets, the wife of a wealthy young financier. Enraged with jealousy, the young officer later returns to the mysterious house, discovers that the inhabitant’s name is Ferragus, and finds a pretext to meet the shadowy older man face-to-face.

From that point, as series of mysterious but clearly intentional misfortunes occurs to Maulincour, starting with masonry falling from a construction site on his carriage, killing his driver and wounding him; the collapse of the repaired carriage when an axle breaks after having been tampered with; and finally, despite all precautions, a poisoning. All are warnings for him not to talk to the husband about the wife’s behavior, but the determined Maulincour on his deathbed, informs the husband of his suspicions.

Meanwhile a clever valet employed by Maulincour discovers something about the identity of Ferragus, only to lose his life by suspicious means.

The husband now takes up the cause. He asks his servants, to his shame, to spy on his wife. He intercepts a letter from Ferragus to his wife, unseals it, learns of a rendezvous at another seedy address, and has the letter resealed and delivered. He managed to find a way of overhearing so he can spy on the meeting of his wife and mysterious Ferragus.

The climactic revelation is that Ferragus is his wife’s father, not her lover. And that Ferragus has behind the scenes arranged for much of Jules’s financial success. Jules doesn’t die from the discovery, but his wife seems to fade away after his lack of trust is revealed.

In this book, as in so much of Balzac, Parisian life exists on two levels, the wealth and glitter of the patrician lifestyle, and the dark world that underlies it, and – in many cases – finances it.

The often misquoted* adage from Père Goriot is hinted at here: “Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu'il a été proprement fait.” (The secret of a great success for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been found out, because it was properly executed.) For so much of nineteenth-century French literature, the border between high and low, orderly and chaotic, beautiful and ugly, is a very thin one.

* It usually comes out as the much less subtle “behind every fortune lies a crime” or the like.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

L’Enfant maudit

L’Enfant maudit (1831) is quite different from other Balzac’s works of this era. Though set during the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century, the era of the French wars of religion, it is no historical novel. The events and the personalities of that conflict, later so rich a vein for Dumas, are just a very faint background elements in this novella.

Nor is L’Enfant maudit in any way realism. The tale takes place in a dark gothic castle on the shores of Normandy, which, by Balzac standards is only superficially described, primarily in terms of atmospherics, not explicit detail.

In some ways L’Enfant maudit resembles Gothic fiction like The Castle of Otranto (1764) or The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), It h has storm scenes, a forbidding castle, a monstrous count, and the melodramatic struggle of good and evil. There is an element of the Grimm fairy tales as well, and it also resembles romantic German fiction, like Tieck’s Der blonde Eckbert (1795) and E.T.A. Das steinerne Herz (1817) with their dark romanticism, identification with the power of nature, longing, suicide, and Liebestod motifs. On that respect, the story also looks forward to Wagner, and to symbolist works like Villiers de l’Isle Adam’s Axël (1890) and Maeterlinck’s Pelléas and Mélisande (1892), all set in a kind of ahistorical, medieval-like scene with vaguely delineated surroundings and characters divorced from the specific actions of daily life and from any real psychological detail.

The novella begins on the proverbial “dark and stormy night,” with the wind and the sea raging outside the castle. The countess d’Hérouville is going into labor, seven months after her marriage to the monstrous count, who is sleeping by her.

The child is born sickly, perhaps premature, sensitive and puny. His bullying, wrathful father suspects but cannot prove the worst, but in nay case disdains the son’s weakness. The mother protects the boy, raising him away from the eyes of her husband, and eventually installing him a fisherman’s hut outside the castle, where he grows up essentially on his own, communing with the ocean, reading, and learning to sing, but still delicate and haunted. When, some years later, his mother is dying he is not allowed inside the castle, but sings to her from outside, comforting her on her deathbed.

As in a fairy tale, there exists a perfect match for the shy, intense young man – the young daughter of his doctor who has also been raised in innocence. They are introduced and fall in love, initially through singing. It’s remarkable that this novella was never made into an opera, as far as I can tell.

Meanwhile, a second son, a chip off the old block, dies, and the father recognizes the first son as his heir. When he learns of the marriage, his rage and threats against the boy and his beloved are so powerful, and the couple’s delicacy so extreme, that they fall down dead from fright!

A strange ending indeed, especially since it had already been well established that the young man had long nursed a desire to be as one with the sea, spending his days among the tidal rocks (dubbed his “domaine”, his “délicieuse patrie”). He spends his days exploring that domain, studying the mysteries of tidal flora and fauna. He feels a “malaise” whenever he goes outside it, into the castle. The key moments of his life (his birth and his mother’s death) are accompanied by a troubled sea. We are expecting the son and his girlfriend to walk arm in arm into the sea, not simply plotz from fear in the castle.

In any case, this is quite a different Balzac from the author of Père Goriot or Eugénie Grandet.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Un Épisode sous la Terreur

This 1830 short story might be considered a piece of historical fiction, but in truth the Reign of Terror happened not all that long before it was written, in 1793-4. That’s 36 years – 5 years before Balzac was born, it is true but very real in the memories of many of his readers. By comparison, the Watergate incident was 36 years ago, and that is fresh in many memories, mine included.

In any case, this story starts with the same elements as Balzac’s works about contemporary Paris. We see the inconnue, an old woman, walking furtively through a poor quarter of the haunted city. The night is snowy, the streets are ill-lit and deserted.

She starts to hear the heavy tread of a man following behind her, but she is too nearsighted and the night is dark, so she can't really see hin. The Terror of the revolution is reflected in her own personal terror.

She ducks into a pastry shop, her destination, and is given a mysterious package. The proprietor and his wife are at first welcoming, then terrified and threatened when it is revealed she is being followed. It’s not clear, but there is some kind of illegal transaction going on, and her fear of the police and police informants is palpable. The old woman returns to her home, an icy flat in a ramshackle tenement, still being followed. After she arrives to be greeted by a man and a woman, there is a terrible knock on the door of their attic flat.

Balzac soon unties the mystery, but the atmosphere of terror is masterfully engineered. As we learn, the old woman is a nun, her flat-mates are another nun and a priest, all hiding from the wrath of the very anti-clerical Terror – and it doesn’t help that the nuns are from the aristocratic class. The package from the baker contains communion wafers. The stranger, although terrifying in appearance turns out not to be a police informer, but a man who has been looking for a priest so that he can receive the Eucharist, along with a blessing and forgiveness for his sins.

He leaves after getting his wish, and leaves behind a mysterious box. As Balzac, winking at us. puts it: "Pour les deux innocentes religieuses, une semblable aventure avait tout l'intérêt d'un roman.” (For the two innocent nuns, an occurrence like this has all the interest of a novel.) Overcome with curiosity, the nuns open the box, finding s blood-soaked handkerchief with the royal ceown embroidered on it. They step back from the “relic” in horror.

After the incident, an invisible benefactor, presumably the stranger, has firewood, food, and clothing quietly delivered to the flat. Switch forward to the days after the Thermidorian reaction, and the priest and nuns celebrate their new freedom from fear by going out on the now-crowded streets. They see a procession go by, with wagons that carry, they are told, the accomplices of Robespierre to their beheading. One of them is the mysterious penitent. When the priest learns that he is Sanson, the executioner of Louis XIV, his family, and many others, he faints.

This is a very crafty short story – suspense, a slow sense of discovery, and then an ironic twist at the very end. Balzac can in other works be long-winded and digressive, here is the master of the short form.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The moral dimension of interior decoration

In Balzac, decor is critical.
“S’il est vrai, d’après un adage, qu’on puisse juger une femme en voyant la porte de sa maison, les appartements doivent traduire son esprit avec encore plus de fidélité.” (If it is true, as the adage says, that you can judge a woman by seeing the door of her house, the rooms inside would have to translate her spirit even more faithfully.
One of the key moments of Balzac’s novella Une double Famille comes when de Granville, preoccupied by the work of a young magistrate, hands over the responsibility for decorating his new Paris house to his bride, the “premières acquisitions de ménage, source de tant de plaisirs et de souvenirs pour les jeunes femmes” (the first household purchases, source of so many pleasures and memories for young women.)

What he discovers, when finally given a tour of the new decor, is for him a horrible insight into his wife’s true character:
"Soit que madame de Granville eût accordé sa confiance à des tapissiers sans goût, soit qu’elle eût inscrit son propre caractère dans un monde de choses ordonné par elle, le jeune magistrat fut surpris de la sécheresse et de la froide solennité qui régnaient dans ses appartements : il n’y aperçut rien de gracieux, tout y était discord, rien ne récréait les yeux.

(Whether Madame de Granville had placed her confidence in upholsters without taste, or she had inscribed her own character in the world of things that she ordered, the young magistrate was surprised by the dryness and the cold solemnity that reigned on his lodgings; there was nothing gracious, all was discord, nothing pleased the eyes.)
And then comes the catalog of tasteless choices, betraying rectitude and pettiness. In the antechamber, the walls are too somber, and the very dark green velvet on the furniture makes it cheerless, rather than welcoming. As Balzac notes, the antechamber is a kind of preface to the character of the inhabitants, and the first impression is a lasting one. The main hall, in faded gold and white, was in fashion in the days of Louis XV (a hundred years before). The details of the furnishings are not only unfashionable, they are themselves a grab-bag of different styles from different periods. The retailers, having devines the character of the client, has unloaded all their unfashionable claptrap on her.

But, it is made clear, this is not just a lapse of good taste or the mistakes of a provincial, but a sign of a deep problem in character. “La dévotion porte à je ne sais quelle humilité fatigante qui n’exclut pas l’orgueil.” (Piety wears a kind of tiresome humility, which does not rule out sinful pride.)

Botched house decoration, especially when the money exists to do far better, is a mortal sin in Balzac’s eyes.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Une double Famille

This minor Balzac novella (1830) has msny of the fairy-tale elements we have already seen in La Maison du chat-qui-pelote (CQP), and that we will see over and over in his work.

First, we see a sad domestic scene. The poverty-ridden mother and beautiful daughter, abandoned on a dismal, dank Parisian side street, live in cheerful destitution. As in Eugénie Grandet (EG), the circumstances are humble and sunlight rarely penetrates. The mother and daughter spend their day working at embroidery, and at one point it is clear that they only manage to survive thanks to a current fashion for embroidery that they manage to earn their daily bread.

Along comes a passer-by, though not a flâneur exactly, as he is apparently on his way most days to and from the nearby court buildings. This passerby, like Sommervieux, the artist of CQP, he is at first named “l’inconnu”, the unknown one, the stranger, and given an air of mystery and a melancholy demeanor.

By chance, like Sommervieux, he happens to look through the window of this depressing slum, and spies the heroine, whose beauty shines through the dark, and the inconnu. though no artist, sees it all like a painting:
"Un matin, vers la fin du mois de septembre, la tête lutine de Caroline Crochard se détachait si brillamment sur le fond obscur de sa chambre, et se montrait si fraîche au milieu des fleurs tardives et des feuillages flétris entrelacés autour des barreaux de la fenêtre ; enfin la scène journalière présentait alors des oppositions d’ombre et de lumière, de blanc et de rose, si bien mariées à la mousseline que festonnait la gentille ouvrière, avec les tons bruns et rouges des fauteuils, que l’inconnu contempla fort attentivement les effets de ce vivant tableau."

(One morning, towards the end of the month of September, the sprightly head of Caroline Crochard stood out so brilliantly in the dark depths of her chamber, and appeared so fresh amidst the belated flowers and withered foliage entwined with bars of the window; in short this everyday scene presented contrasts between shadow and light, white and pink, so nicely wed to the muslin dress that adorned the gentle seamstress, with the brown and reds of the armchairs that the stranger contemplated this living pictur with the utmost attentione.)

As in fairy tales, the heroine’s origins turn out to be of distinction; the parents were artistic nobility, a dancer and choreographer at the Opéra before the revolution, and later the father become active in the taking of the Bastille, eventually rising to the rank of colonel under Napoleon. Mortally wounded at the battle of Lützen, he dies and the family loses his pension after the Bourbon Restoration. The stranger, whose name we discover to be Roger, remains mysterious.

We see a brief courtship. Suddenly, it's several years year later, and we come on a bright and happy apartment. Caroline, richly dressed, is waiting for Roger’s arrival. We discover they have two lovely children, and only his heavy burden of work clouds their happiness.

Then suddenly, we are in what seems to be an unconnected story. The vicomte de Granville, an aspiring lawyer, is summoned by his father the comte de Granville back to his native Norman town of Bayeux. There it is arranged that he will marry a rich heiress, his childhood friend, who has been raised as an ultra-devout Catholic. At first, the viscount is discouraged, but the beauty and amiability of the young lady is attractive, as is her fortune. Once back in Paris, his father assures him, he will cure her of her pietism.

No such luck! The wife’s Jansenism increases, the house gradually becomes priest-ridden and unbearable, under her submissive but ever-judging passive aggression, and in spite of several children, the marriage becomes one in name only, as the husband seeks solace in work and in the arms of another woman. It slowly dawned on this reader that the vicomte, later count after his father’s death, is the same Roger, whose initial melancholy was caused by the unhappy marriage.

Flash again to years later. We find de Granville, now a wealthy président-judge, again a flamer in a dubious neighborhood of Paris, noting with curiosity a garret window, but having no idea whose habitation it is. He learns that it is Caroline, who seems to have abandoned him for a younger man, a man who mistreats her miserably and has stolen the patrimony of her children, who she ignores in her infatuation. The wife is long dead, and de Granville is estranged from his ;legitimate children, having lost all energy for life. He learns from one of his legitimate sons, also a judge, that his illegitimate son has been arrested for theft and is likely to be sent to prison. He refuses to intervene and decamps to Italy, clearly ready to die.

The characters aren’t in the end all that interesting, but the narrative experimentation is fascinating. The transitions in the story are sudden jumps, very disorienting. We think we understand the story up to the midpoint, but we are told to forget these characters for the moment, (“Il faut en oublier un moment les personages.“) The revelation that Caroline is a kept women, not a wife, is yet another variation on the Cinderella story we have seen in other Balzac works, notably EG and CQP. Balzac will come back to play on this trope at least two more times that I know of.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Balzac the master of detail

Balzac is a master observer of the externalities. Here are a few examples from Eugénie Grandet, though we could go on forever.
  • The opening words of the book paint a description in the bleakest shades. “Il se trouve dans certaines provinces des maisons dont la vue inspire une mélancolie égale à celle que provoquent les cloîtres les plus sombres, les landes les plus ternes ou les ruines les plus tristes. “ (There exist houses in certain provinces, the sight of which inspires a melancholy equal to those of the most somber cloisters, the most drab moors, the saddest ruins.

  • Every description of the Grandet household is somber, from the forbidding street, the lack of sunlight, the sparingly doled-out candles, to the drab undecorated walls of the house. Into this somber world walks Charles Grandet, a vision in vivid color. 

Balzac expertly captures in that sparkle by describing Charles's foppish collection of vests/waistcoats: “Il emporta sa collection de gilets les plus ingénieux : il y en avait de gris, de blancs, de noirs, de couleur scarabée, à reflets d’or, de pailletés, de chinés, de doubles, à châle ou droits de col, à col renversé, de boutonnés jusqu’en haut, à boutons d’or."


(He brought his collection of most ingenious vests; there were gray ones, white ones, black ones, some were scarab-colored, some with golden highlights, some with sequins, mottled ones, double-breasted ones crossed like a shawl, others had straight collars; some had turned-over collars, some buttoned up to the top with gilt buttons.”

    The brilliance, the variety, the copious plenty of fashion and the inventiveness of the clothing trades of the big city stand in utter contrast to the provincial, drab surroundings, the patches and repatched clothing. For Eugénie, Charles shines like a creature from another planet.

  • Des Grassins, the président of the local court in Saumur, who pursues and finally marries Eugénie, is also betrayed by his clothing. At age forty, Balzac writes, when he comes courting at her evenings at home. “il se mettait en jeune homme” (he presented himself as a young man), “en chemise dont le jabot à gros plis lui donnait un air de famille avec les individus du genre dindon.” In a shirt whose large, pleated ruffle made him look like a member of the turkey family.)

  • Another devastatingly cruel description is the sketch of Charles eventual wife, whom he marries for a title and social position: “Mademoiselle d’Aubrion était une demoiselle longue comme l’insecte, son homonyme ; maigre, fluette, à bouche dédaigneuse, sur laquelle descendait un nez trop long, gros du bout, flavescent à l’état normal, mais complètement rouge après les repas, espèce de phénomène végétal plus désagréable au milieu d’un visage pâle et ennuyé que dans tout autre.”


(Mademoiselle d’Aubrion was a young lady who was long like the insect, her homonym*; thin, spindly, with a disdainful mouth onto which descended a too-long nose, thick at the end, normally sallow, but completely red after a meal, a kind of vegetative phenomenon, all the more unpleasant in the middle of a pale and bored face.)

* That bug, which I can’t find described elsewhere is maybe? be the ténébrion – the beetle that has the mealworm as its larva, though it’s hard to call that insect long

PS: Undertstood, thanks to a French acquaintance. It's not the "d'Aubtion" that is the homonymn. but the "Mademoiselle" or rather demosielle, the damselfly, an stick-like insect that fits the description,

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Père Grandet

It’s an obvious comparison – the two great misers of French literature – the subject of a well-known essay by 19th century French critic Hippolyte Taine. And, aside from the intense love of lucre, they could hardly be further apart. It’s not just that Molière’s Harpagon is a comical creation, a laughingstock, rather incompetent in the end, while Grandet has a kind of near-tragic dignity, and remains formidable to the end. As Taine points out, Harpagon is a man born into the middle-class who stoops to avarice, while Grandet is an elevated peasant and cooper, who builds an empire.

Harpagon for all his miserliness, is hardly connected to the physical world – the conventions of 17th century French comedy, the bienséances, dictate a limited range of objects in the play’s universe and a limited, proper vocabulary to describe them. We hardly pot of gold (cassette) that is stolen from the miser, and his frugality is mostly conveyed through talk.

By contrast, Grandet has his hands on everything – not only does he cut the family’s bread and determine the menu, he also replaces a loose tread on the stairs with his own hammer and a piece of old wood, builds shipping cases for his soon-to-be-exiled nephew, and (with two trusted servants) lugs hundreds of pounds of coins down the stairs into a waiting wagon late at night, in order to accomplish one of his financial masterstrokes.

And it’s not just the physical specificity. Grandet knows the inventory of his possessions and income to the sou. He can calculate interest rates and rates of exchange in his head. Not just a miser, he is a brilliant businessman who knows how to negotiate with Belgian wine dealers when the prices are high, calculate the return on timber plantings, and take advantage of opportunities in the complex floating relationships among gold, francs, and government paper. He even, from a distance, manages (somehow – repeated readings still stump me exactly how) to trick the Parisian moneymen, making a tidy profit from his brother’s bankruptcy.

What a multifaceted, surprising, dense character, not a “humour” of stinginess. He is s skinflint in the home, true, measuring out the use of coffee, firewood, and candles, and he does like to count and handle his money– all what you might expect.

But there is so much more. He enjoys manipulating others (the greedy bourgeoisie of Saumur), so that they end up working for him without pay. He knows how to emulate generosity, so that his nephew thinks he is being helped, not swindled. He is what is now called a locavore, getting his vegetables, game, firewood, and other products from his tenant-farmers for free, a kind of twisted Robinson Crusoe of self-sustenance.

Perhaps the most brilliant stroke is Grandet’s tactic of deliberately stuttering when doing business, a ruse we are told, he picked up from a Jewish merchant, in the only ca where he himself had been outdone in a business deal. Stuttering, as we learn, motivates others to complete your sentences, turning rivals into unthinking advocates for the stutterer, making them end up acting against their own best interests. And we see Grandet use this ruse (and we too get impatient reading these passages).

Grandet is a horrible, obsessive man, but in a society where no one but the innocent Eugénie is at all admirable, Grandet is no more of a knave than those he is cheating, and is devilishly fun to see in action. The analogue to his character is not Harpagon but Volpone.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Eugénie Grandet

In many ways La Maison du chat-qui-pelote is a rehearsal for Eugénie Grandet (1833), Balzac’s first great novel and a great popular success.

The underlying story for the two works is similar, at least in the beginning. The daughter of the senex iratus, the angry old man, falls in love with the handsome stranger, the exotic inhabitant of a more worldly society of which she, kept sequestered, cannot conceive. That lover falls for her innocent beauty, and she for his urbane beauty.

As we have noted, this is a classic plot device in comedy. Like Jessica in The Merchant of Venice, Eugénie hands over her tangible treasure to her beloved. Like countless locked-away and innocent daughters and wards, she fall sin love and learns to resist the tyranny of the older man who seeks to exact obedience.

Now there are major differences between Eugénie and Chat-qui-Pelote. While the draper Guillaume in the latter story is simply a thrifty and conservative member of his class, Père Grandet is clearly unhinged by his avarice. We’ll get to the miser in a later post.

Unlike the bland heroine of so many comedies, Eugénie grows and learns in the course of the novel. In the beginning she is as one with the unthinking "ilotisme" of her mother. (Ilotisme, which denotes unthinking servitude, as with the helots of Ancient Sparta). At the age of 23, she is still a naive and dutiful daughter, who knows nothing of the outside world.

The arrival of her dashing and suddenly impoverished cousin, the Parisian dandy Charles Grandet, makes her doubt for the first time her father, subverting his commands in helping to properly feed and give comfort to the cousin, finally giving her gold to her cousin to help him off as he sets off to the tropics to re-make his fortune.

They have pledged their love, and she waits for him over the course of eight years. By the time she hears from him many years later, she has learned how to manage her father’s estate and takes it over at his death. An increasingly confident and fabulously rich heiress, she becomes a magnet for suitors, which she keeps at a distance with knowing irony. In many ways she has become her father’s daughter, thrifty and clever, but without his psychotic avarice.

The fairy tale should be completed by the return of Charles, ready to sweep her off her feet. The reality is that Charles has made his fortune, but by getting involved in the slave trade and, we are led to assume, even worse – “résolu de faire fortune quibuscumque viis” (resolved to make his fortune by whatever means). His innocent passion for the virginal Eugénie has been forgotten in the arms of woman of all races: "les Négresses, les Mulâtresses, les Blanches, les Javanaises, les Almées, ses orgies de toutes les couleurs". And in returning with a comfortable fortune to France, he has struck up with a well-connected but impoverished Marquis whose ugly daughter he will marry in exchange for a title and a position in society.

At first, Eugénie is momentarily devastated by the news. But in the end, she pulls strings and spends money from afar to expunge Charles debts from his father’s bankruptcy, allowing the marriage to go forward.

And she herself gets married – to a much older and rather unattractive judge who has been courting her for his whole life. This ambitious man is described in most unflattering terms – “ressemblait à un grand clou rouillé" (resembled a big rusty nail), and “une cruche –dont les cheveux ébouriffés ajoutaient encore à la mauvaise grâce de sa physionomie brune” (a jerk…whose ebony-tinted hair enhanced the ill grace of his brown complexion).

But Eugénie is empowered enough to dictate her own conditions – no conjugal relations, the ability to live her own life, and, in the end, she outlives her husband and inherits his property. She lives a rather sad and very frugal life, spending her time and money endowing churches and helping the poor – “La main de cette femme panse les plaies secrètes de toutes les familles.” (The hand of this woman bandages the secret wounds of all families.)

She becomes a kind of Mother Teresa:
"Telle est l’histoire de cette femme, qui n’est pas du monde au milieu du monde ; qui, faite pour être magnifiquement épouse et mère, n’a ni mari, ni enfants, ni famille.” (Such is the story of this woman, who is not of the world even in the midst of the world, who, made to be magnificently wife and mother, has neither husband, no money, nor family.)
A somewhat sad, if wise, end – but imagine how much worse had she married Charles and been pulled into Parisian society!

Monday, November 16, 2009

More notes on Balzac's Chat-qui-pelote

Random thoughts:
  • As often in Balzac, the narrative in set in motion by the perspective of an early-morning flâneur wandering the streets of Paris and coming across an ancient rickety building with the droll and striking sign of the cat with a racket of the title. This flâneur views the rickety old house ("débris de la bourgeoisie du seizième siècle") with the "enthousiasme d’archéologue" – as does the novelist.
  • It's hard to imagine any earlier writer dwelling in such detail on the quiddity, the distinguishing details of everyday life. And it's appropriate that this early work centers on the shop of a draper. Balzac has an obsession with clothing and furnishings and even (from what I've read) saw himself as a bit of an interior decorator. We see the activities of the shop in in some detail, especially the inventory day, and the various cloths are lovingly described. The painter-hero even wins (in part) the confidence of the father by showing his enthusiasm for cloth, at least from a painterly perspective.
  • The cloth trade in France must have been booming in the 1820s. After three decades of war-caused interruption of trade, a world of fabrics suddenly was available: cotton from the US and India (the cotton gin had been invented/perfected around the turn of the century), silks from China, wool from England, along with the advances in power looms and other manufacturing processes, meant a rapid expansion of inventories even as prices were lowered.
  • The "hero" is the hot new painter, whose work borrows from Raphael and the Dutch Masters, is portrayed as revolutionizing a backward-looking art world. One painting by Sommervieux (a domestic study of the draper's family) are touted as the vanguard of a new style in French art world – "La scène d’intérieur fit une révolution dans la peinture." (The interior scene created a revolution in painting.)

    Just as the artist in the story makes a great éclat with his new way of painting that gives life to the scenes of daily life, seeing the beauty in the humble, so is Balzac about to launch a career with a new type of narrative, painterly in many ways, that spies into the windows of Paris, from the upper-class mansion to the filthy taudis (though no in this work) and the workaday bourgeois hearth in-between.

    Guillaume, the draper, disparages the new style of painting, in words that might be applied to Balzac's fiction: "Est-ce donc bien amusant de voir en peinture ce qu’on rencontre tous les jours dans notre rue !" (Is it so amusing then to see in a painting what we come across every day on our streets?)

  • One more note on class: The draper and his wife are upholders of old-fashioned bourgeois values, that have been associated with the shop since it was founded. When eventually they give consent to the wedding between their daughter and the painter, the parents are still doubtful: "À cette singulière époque, le commerce et la finance avaient plus que jamais la folle manie de s’allier aux grands seigneurs...Ses axiomes favoris étaient que, pour trouver le bonheur, une femme devait épouser un homme de sa classe ; on était toujours tôt ou tard puni d’avoir voulu monter trop haut." (In that singular era, business and finance had, more than ever, a mad passion to ally itself to the aristocracy…his [Guillaume's] favorite axioms were that, to find happiness, a woman should marry a man of her class; sooner or later, people are always punished for wishing to climb too high.)

That mad passion to ascend the ladder provides the driving force for the fiction of Balzac, for Zola, and for much of the literature in between.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

La Maison du chat-qui-pelote

This early Balzac novella (1829) is already unmistakeably Balzac. The meticulous, depiction of Parisian life is there, from the industrious drapery shop to the cruelties of the decadent nobility. The painterly eye for detail, more than ever appropriate in this work where the hero is a painter whose sensational new artwork puts on canvas the same humble middle-class scene and characters that Balzac puts on paper.

Underneath all this realistic detail is a typical New Comedy plot – the beautiful daughter is watched, explicitly Argus-like by father, mother, elder sister, and amatory rival (apprentice). The young hero, Théodore de Sommervieux (a painter, but an aristocrat of sorts), falls in love from a distance, passing outside the home/shop she rarely leaves. In fact, the term cloister is used for the girl's situation and the mother is compared to a "tourière", the nun in a convent who is the other nuns' only link to the outside world. The girls unaffected, pious beauty attracts both the painter and the man.

In the course of the novella, he managed to evade the guardians, declares his love, overcomes the parents' fears objections, and marries the girl. But that is bit half the story.

But in spite of the realist texture, this is a Cinderella story (In fact, the family early in the novella celebrate a financially successful year bu the rare treat of a play, which turns out to be a performance of Cendrillion.) But most Cinderella stories end with the wedding. Here, we see the aftermath.

After a year or two of infatuation, the young heroine finds that her pious and naive upbringing make it impossible for her to mix with either the artistic or the high-society circles that her husband is a part of. Her innocence, so charming at first, makes her the laughingstock of his bohemian colleagues, eventually making her appear the more insipid in her husband's eye.
"Madame de Sommervieux tenta de changer son caractère, ses mœurs et ses habitudes," (Madame de Sommervieux tried to change her character, her manners, and her habits.) But all in vain.

When she seeks consolation from her now-retired parents and her sister; they can't conceive of her life and offer her little sympathy. She is half- transformed, belonging to no class, at home nowhere. "Elle pleura des larmes de sang, et reconnut trop tard qu’il est des mésalliances d’esprits aussi bien que des mésalliances de mœurs et de rang." (She wept tears of blood, and realized too late that there are misalliances of minds/spirits as well as misalliances of manners and rank.) Isolated and unloved, she slips into death a few years later.

The leading theme of nineteenth century literature is anxiety about class. In a century where revolution –poltical, social. and financial– is constant, the issue of where any person stands is a matter.of consent obsession.
La Maison du chat-qui-pelote is a Cinderella story based in realistic deal and a keen view of class differences.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Diving in

French literature of the nineteenth century grabbed me early and never let go. At 14 or 15, I stumbled upon Dumas père and devoured book after book, from the obvious (The Three Musketeers and Monte-Cristo) to the off-the-beaten track (Agénor de Mauléon and Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge). I even owned and leafed through an abridged paperback translation of his Dictionary of Cooking, mostly for the anecdotes.

I read the plays and novels of Hugo, devoured the few plays of Rostand, and then started reading Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Huysmans, and Zola – all of them in English (which I will get to later). Each author was a revelation, and there were so many titles on the shelf!

In college, an English and drama major, I took courses in French Renaissance and 18th century literature. I wrote an undergraduate thesis about the much-maligned and obscenely prolific 19th century playwright Eugène Scribe, master of the so-called "Well-Made Play". I translated and directed one of his plays: La Cameraderie (translated as The Inner Circle).

As a graduate student, I wrote about sex, money, and objects in comedy, and devoured all kinds of plays, including those of 19th century Frenchmen like Sardou, Labiche, and Feydeau. I've had a career outside academia since I got my Ph.D., but I have continued to read a lot, and certainly have read French literature of all kinds.

Now I had a very good high school French program, and I speak the language not too terribly, I hope, and read it with ease. In high school, I plunged into Molière and Voltaire without too much difficulty, read diverse poems and plays. But in my self-satisfaction after cracking open s 19th century novel in the original was a real slap in the face.

In the first sentence of Balzac's Eugénie Grandet, two words immediately sent me to the dictionary – I know then and have remembered evert since — they were "lande" (moor) and "terne" (drab), words that a neoclassicist would choke before putting on paper. That was just a start. I spent more time buried in the dictionary than in the novella, with its loving descriptions of upholstery, grotesque characters and what they were wearing, the naming of dozens of flowers and birds, and the tools of the trade and architectural details — then I gave up I had learned the difference between knowing a language and knowing a language.

So here I am, many years later, and I have decided that now I really want to read this great corpus in the original with comprehension. It's a steep climb, I know well.

This blog will track my reading of this vast corpus of literature.The prose fiction primarily, but also the plays, poetry, and discursive writing (almost every famous author seems to have written at least one travel book or five). The project will be anchored by the two prolific giants in each half of the century of the century – Balzac and Zola, whose great novel cycles are the landmarks.

I know this is a ridiculous task. The number of titles written by Balzac number almost 100. Zola wrote over 30 long novels. Flaubert and Stendhal's works are a little more finite, true, nut then there are the others: endless works by Dumas (père) and his collaborators. Eugène Sue's giant novel cycles, scads of stories from Maupassant, hundreds of plays by Scribe and Sardou and their competitors, Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, George Sand, Dumas fils, the Goncourts, Musset, Mérimée, Gautier, and on and on.

However Quixotic, that's my plan — and this blog is my report from the Front. Note also that there is a companion blog, which is dedicated to the problem of getting advanced vocabulary to stick.