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.

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