Friday, December 31, 2010

Balzac, “La Maison Nucingen” (1837)

This short novella reports an overheard conversation. The author and friends are quietly sitting in a private room at a restaurant, when the room next door fills up with four loud merry makers, easily overheard through the thin walls. The four turn out to be among the most cynical and malicious dandies in Paris, characters that all appear in other Balzac works.

They speak in a racy, allusive jargon, full of semi-private jokes and calumnies about friends and foes alike. Thanks to the reproduction of their dialogues, this is much more difficult than other Balzac works to fully comprehend.

Some notes:

1. Realistic fiction is basically about sex and money: who is sleeping (or not sleeping) with whom, and how did so-and-so get (or lose) his money. In this case, the big question is about money: how did Eugène de Rastignac, who we saw as penniless at the end of Père Goriot and is the most central character of the Comédie Humaine, become a wealthy man and a leader in French society?

2. As relevant today as in the time of Louis-Philippe, the answer is – through insider trading. The narrative details the machinations of the Baron de Nucigen, the Alsatian banker and husband of Delphine, who is Rastignac’s lover and the daughter of Goriot. Worse than with modern-day financial skullduggery, getting my brain around the actual machinery of 19th century French speculation is near impossible.

3. The narrative technique is very unusual. The four young dandies constantly tease, joke, and digress. The main thread, Rastignac’s fortune, gets lost constantly, so much so that the other characters keep expressing their frustration with Bixiou, the principal source of the secret in question, The rather simple story of Nucigen using Rastignac to pull off the sharp deal and rewarding him for his help is eclipsed by the story of the marriage of one of the big losers from the stock swindle.

4. Balzac, himself a serial failure in terms of financial schemes, is bitterly cynical about the unpunished criminality of the financial system:
prenez cinq mille francs dans mon secrétaire, vous allez au Bagne. Mais avec le piment d’un gain à faire habilement mis dans la gueule de mille boursiers, vous les forcez à prendre les rentes de je ne sais quelle république ou monarchie en faillite, émises … pour payer les intérêts de ces mêmes rentes : personne ne peut se plaindre. Voilà les vrais principes de l’âge d’or où nous vivons !

Take five thousand francs from my desk, you’ll go to jail. But if you cleverly feed a thousand investors with the spicy prospect of a big gain, you force them to take the bonds of some republic or monarchy or other in bankruptcy, issued … to pay off the interest on these very bonds: nobody can complain. These are the true principles of the golden age in which we live.
Add the word “derivatives”, and it sounds so 21st century.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Narcisssism and sexuality

In Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin, we get a frank discussion of his own sexuality from the principal male character, the poet D'Albert. While his sincerity and articulateness in his letters are admirable, the character they defray is appalling.

First, D'Albert is a convinced and over-the-top aesthete, who rejects anything less than beautifuk
C’est un véritable supplice pour moi que de voir de vilaines choses ou de vilaines personnes.

It's a real torture for me to see ugly things or ugly people.
Disappointed with his own lack of great beauty, he revela himself as a narcissist as well:
Bien des fois je me regarde, des heures entières, dans le miroir avec une fixité et une attention inimaginables, pour voir s’il n’est pas survenu quelque amélioration dans ma figure.

Many times I look at myself in the mirror. for hours at a time, with unimaginable steadiness and attnetion. to see whether there has been any improvement in my face.
And his narcissism extends to wishing not to be a handsome man, but a beautiful womanL
Quel dommage que ce soit un homme, ou quel dommage que je ne sois pas une femme !

What a pity that to be a man, or what a pity that I sam not a woman!
In making love to his mistress, he tries in vain to enter her mind and experience her experiences, to meld their sequel experiences together.

Looking around for true beauty, he finds it at its highest in a new arrival, Théodore, a woman disguises as a man:
Le seul défaut qu’il ait, c’est d’être trop beau et d’avoir des traits trop délicats pour un homme."

The only fault he has is that he is too beautiful and has feaures too delicate for a man
He starts to pursue Théodore, portraying himself as of the opposite gender:
Je me suis prostitué, et j’ai fait comme une vierge qui s’en irait dans un mauvais lieu espérant trouver un amant parmi ceux que la débauche y pousse.

I prostituted myself, and have acted like a virgin who goes into a bad place hoping to find a lover among those who are driven their by debauchery.

Finally he finds himself falling deeply in love with what he thinks is a man, as he writes to his friend Silvio:
J’ai découvert l’affreuse vérité… Silvio, j’aime… Oh ! non, je ne pourrai jamais te le dire… j’aime un homme !

I have dissevered the frightening truth … Si;vio, I love … Oh, no, I could never say it … I love a manna

Madempoiselle de Maupin is an amazingly bold, insightful, experimental work in the guise of an epistolary love novel.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Gautier, Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835)

This intriguing novel of sexual identity is s brilliant, if imperfect work, Gautier's first novel. Mostly in epistolary form, the story is set somewhere in provincial France. The only clue to its time-period is that the main characters put on a private performance of a Shakespeare play (As You Like It) in translation (Comme il vous plaira), which sets it in the some time after François Guizot translated the play in 1821.

The name of the title character is taken from an actual remarkable woman: an 17th century female opera singer, duelist, cross-dresser, and lesbian named La Maupin. Gautier apparently first planned to write a historical novel about the singer and then simply took inspiration from her life,

On one level, the novel is a simple love triangle, a little like George Sand's Indiana (1832). The three parties are a poet, d'Albert, his widowed mistress, Rosette, and a man named Théodore, who turns out to be a women (Maupin) in men's clothing, The twist is that both Rosette and D'Albert fall passionately in love with Théodore -- a matter of great distress to D'Albert, who is tormented by the thought that he may be a homosexual.

As You Like It is cleverly worked in. Just as Orlando is in love with Rosalind, who disguises herself as man (Ganymede), Orlando finds himself strangely drawn to him/her. Ganymede offers to cure Orlando of his love by impersonating Rosalind. meanwhile Rosalind-as-man has to fight off the amatory advances of the shepherdess Phebe.

And in the performanve, these ether roles are played by D'Albert, Théodore, and Rosette.

But what in Shakespeare is portrayed as Platonic love, in Gautier is strongly carnal. D'Albert enjoys a torrid sexual relationship with Rosette, though he finds her a little shallow. Rosette makes a strongly sequel play for Théodore/Maupin. In in the end, Théodore/Maupin ends up in loses her virginity with D'Albert, to whom she reveals her true sex, and then with Rosette, though the details of their lovemaking is rather politely understated. In the end, Théodore/Maupin escapes from both of them.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Gautier, Préface de Mademoiselle de Maupin (1834)

Like Hugo's preface to the unperformed drama Cromwell. Gautier's preface to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin is a manifesto of Romanticism, one that goes even further in its self-differentiation mot from the lingering shreds pf neo-classisim (killed off finally by Hugo), but from a kind of moralistic sentimentalism. The novel itself is sensual, sarcastic. and profoundly "immoral", in the sense that casual sex is in no way punished and that there is no "moral" ending for th protagonists

The essay is most famous for its defense of "l'art pour l'art" (art for art;s sake). though he coins that phrase elsewhere. In seeing the production of beauty as the main purpose of art. rather than utility, whether moral or political.
Rien de ce qui est beau n’est indispensable à la vie. - On supprimerait les fleurs, le monde n’en souffrirait pas matériellement ; qui voudrait cependant qu’il n’y eût plus de fleurs ? Je renoncerais plutôt aux pommes de terre qu’aux roses, et je crois qu’il n’y a qu’un utilitaire au monde capable d’arracher une plate-bande de tulipes pour y planter des choux. À quoi sert la beauté des femmes ? Pourvu qu’une femme soit médicalement bien conformée, en état de faire des enfants, elle sera toujours assez bonne pour des économistes. À quoi bon la musique ? à quoi bon la peinture ? Qui aurait la folie de préférer Mozart à M. Carrel, et Michel-Ange à l’inventeur de la moutarde blanche ? Il n’y a de vraiment beau que ce qui ne peut servir à rien ; tout ce qui est utile est laid, car c’est l’expression de quelque besoin, et ceux de l’homme sont ignobles et dégoûtants, comme sa pauvre et infirme nature.

Nothing that is beautiful is essential to life. - Get rid of flowers, the world would not suffer physically, but who would want there to be no more flowers? I would give up potatoes rather than roses, and I think there is only one utilitarian in the world capable of pulling out a bed of tulips to plant cabbages. What use is the beauty of women? Provided a woman is medically well formed, capable of having children, she will always be good enough for the economists. What good is music? what good painting? Who would be crazy enough prefer Mr. Carrel*, over Moxart. and the inventor of mustard over Michelangelo? There's nothing truly beautiful that can be used for anything, and everything that is useful is ugly, because it is the expression of some need, and man;s needs are ignoble and disgusting, like his poor, weak nature.
*Presumably Armand Carrel, a contemporary historian and journalist, the dieter of yje republican newspaper Le National.

A few points:

1. Gautier clearly influenced the Parnassian movement in France and the Aesthetic ,movement in England. But I think the debate goes much deeper than those rather limited movements. Do we judge any art work because of its appeal to the senses or by its ability to provoke action, whether moral, intellectual, or political? That's a debate that has raged ever since, and the current triumph of socially motivated study of literature (post-Colonialism. gay studies, etc.) is just another front in a long-term war. Is the agenda (tides) more important then the form (structure and texture)? Can a work that now seems irrelevant, vapid, or even somewhat repellent in terms of idea still be enjoyed as art>

2. Literature, of all the arts, is subject to such moral, thematic criticism. Such discussions of music, for example, are pretty thin. Yes, attacls on the moral failings of, say, Wagner or Ravel or jazz ("degeneracy") may come in reaction to change, but it's clear we are talking about taste rather than some intrinsic ideological value that music might or might not support.

3. The "beautiful" does not mean the pretty, one has to believe. Gautier wrote several unsettling, opium-induced horror stories, and the 19th century obsession with horror. the grotesque, sexual perversity, and the lower depths of society are hardly beautiful in any normal sense. The sense of beauty evolves, so that Baudelaire and Zola for example, once considered ugly. now are as far more beautiful than self-consciously decorous literature.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Balzac, Le Médecin de campagne (1833)

This unusual Utopian novella is set in the mountains around Grenoble, where a country doctor has taken a community mired in poverty, congenital mental disease, and backwardness and changed it into a thriving and happy town. In part, it is a parable of capitalism, and for me, this the best part of the book.

The effort to upgrade the valley starts with the building of a feeder road, with the establishment of a native basket-making industry, with the improvement of farms, crops, and livestock. We see the steady arrival of blacksmiths, cart makers, masons, an inn, a brickworks, and so on. Steady. decent-paying employment, improved food, and the opportunity to do more than subsistence farming has a large impact on the mental health of community.

The story is carried forth by a series of first-person narratives -- from the doctor himself, from the military man who comes to visits hum, from a old soldier-storyteller who tells tales of crime and the Napoleonic Wars, and so on. What is unusual is that there is no love story, save fondly remembered affairs in the far past. There is a lot of didactic discussion about economy, society, and religion.

At one point, the doctor barrettes his own background -- and this story has a more typical Balzacian shape. It's s the story of a poor medical student, a kind mistress, an illegitimate child, an inheritance, and the student's typical Balzac entry into fast company.
J'eus de ces passions éphémères qui sont la honte des salons de Paris, où chacun va cherchant un amour vrai, se blase à sa poursuite, tombe dans un libertinage de bon ton

I had those ephemeral passions which are the shame of the salons of Paris, where everyone goes searching for a true love, grows blasé from his pursuit, falls back into a high-class libertinism.
He is sobered by the death of first his former mistress then her child. After other disappointments, he finds religion, goes back to practicing medicine and devotes himself to saving this backward community, as far as possible from the whirl of Paris. What little he retains of his fortune, he invests in helping the community and lives himself a Spartan life. On his death, he is reverenced as a saint.

When Balzac turns to the ins-and-out of business, he is always compelling. The political and moral philosophy is a hard slog, however.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Balzac's Les Chouans

Les Chouans (1829) is Balzac;s first real novel; it is about one of the numerous rebellions against the post-revolutionary French Republic in Brittany. The Chouans, named after the chouette (owl) whose call they use a signal, are at the same time Royalist, very Catholic, and very savage.

While the principal character, the Marquis de Montauran, an aristocrat, could the hero of a sentimental novel, his followers are ready to murder, rape, and torture with the utmost cruelty, all encouraged by priests, who see the Revolution and its troops as Satanic.

In fact, what the Chouans resemble, more than anything, are the wild Indians of the New World, to whom Balzac openly likens them:
Marche-à-terre, qui semblait posséder le don de voir dans l’obscurité, ou dont les sens continuellement en mouvement devaient avoir acquis la finesse de ceux des Sauvages, avait entrevu Corentin ; comme un chien bien dressé, peut-être l’avait-il senti.

Marche-à-terre [a Chouan guerilla], who seemed to have the gift of seeing in the dark, or whose continually active senses had to have acquired the keenness of the Savages, had glimpsed Corentin; like a well trained dog, maybe he had sniffed him out.
The novel is in part an homage to James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, published just three years before, and translated rapidly into French. As with Les Chouans, the Cooper novel is a tale from recent history of the clash of cultures, of organized government troops against daring irregulars, built around a central romance inn the Walter Scott vein between a man and woman on opposite sides.

This is a beginner's effort, and quire distant from the Balzac of La Peau de chagrin so soon to be published (1831). In its unevenness it resembles the occasionally exciting and sometimes wooden Last of the Mohicans. It is at its best in describing the details of peasant life in Brittany, where Balzac has made a tour before writing the book. His close observation of domestic life and the landscape outshines the intrigue.

Again like Scott, Mérimée, Hugo, and Cooper, like all Romantics, it gets its energy from the savagery so close-at-hand and so recent. For the French readers, this was like have Chateaubriand North American savages set down only 200 miles from Paris. Pretty soon, Balzac will discover the savages are in the back streets and the drawing rooms of Paris itself.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Balzac's "Madame Firmiani"

"Madame Firmiani" (1932) is a rather minor short story. It is based on two mysteries, both of which are uncovered at the end.

First, there is Madame Firmiani, a mysterious woman of uncertain martial status, but accepted into society. We see her at first only obliquely, through the opinions of over a dozen observers, a few admiring, many more spreading contradictory rumors. That long introduction is a little narrative tour-de-force, a deviation from the omniscient narrator of most of Balzac's fiction.

The hero, Oscar, is a young aristocrat who has apparently squandered his fortune and also appears to have a liaison with Mme. Firmiani. How and why he has ended up living in a garret teaching lessons is buzzed about, and it reaches his unclad benefactor, who undertakes to come to Paris to straighten things out.

In the end, the apparent scandal turns out to be quite the opposite. Oscar has been shamed into paying back the fortune that his father got through fraud, restoring the income of an impoverishing family. The mysterious Mme. Firmiani, who advised him to make good his father's crime, has been waiting until her husband's death abroad is confirmed and her inheritance clear. She arrives triumphantly to rescue Oscar from the garret and marry him.

Probably the most noticeable aspect of the story is a familiar Balzac obsession – both in life and in fiction, Namely, the affair between the richer, older married woman and the brilliant but penniless youth with aristocratic pretensions. In the story, as so frequently in Balzac's life, the financial embarrassments of the young man are cleared by the loving older woman.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The battle of the Fats and the Leans

The artist Claude Lantier, the most sympathetic character in Zola's Le Ventre de Paris, explains to Florent, the protagonist, that there is a battle being fought between the Fats (almost all the members of the community of Les Hslles) and the lean outsiders like Claude and Florent). the refusers of try feats.

Claude takes off from a description of a set of engravings (by Breugel?)
Est-ce que vous connaissez la bataille des Gras et des Maigres ? demanda-t-il. Florent, surpris, dit que non. Alors Claude s’enthousiasma, parla de cette série d’estampes avec beaucoup d’éloges. Il cita certains épisodes : les Gras, énormes à crever, préparant la goinfrerie du soir, tandis que les Maigres, pliés par le jeûne, regardent de la rue avec la mine d’échalas envieux ; et encore les Gras, à table, les joues débordantes, chassant un Maigre qui a eu l’audace de s’introduire humblement, et qui ressemble à une quille au milieu d’un peuple de boules. Il voyait là tout le drame humain ; il finit par classer les hommes en Maigres et en Gras, en deux groupes hostiles dont l’un dévore l’autre, s’arrondit le ventre et jouit. - Pour sûr, dit-il, Caïn était un Gras et Abel un Maigre.

Are you familiar with the the battle of the Fats and the Leans? he asked. Florent, surprised, says that he didn't. Then Claude became enthusiastic, spoke about this series of engravings with high praise. He cited certain episodes: The Fats, ready to burst, sitting down for the evening pig-out, while the Leans, doubled over by fasting, watch with envy from the street with their rail-thin faces, and next the Fats, at table, with overflowing cheeks, chasing away a Lean who had the audacity to enter humbly, one who resembles a candlepin in the middle of a population of bowling balls. It takes in the whole human drama; it ends up by classifying humanity into Lean and Fat, two hostile groups, the one devouring the other, to filli its stomach and enjoy. -- For certain he says, Cain was a Fat and Abel a Lean.
All of this fits in with the action of the novel. Claude states that the Fats hate even the sight of the Leans, witness Florent's treatment by the fishmongers, who act like cats driving out a mouse. That Florent is little interested in money and even less in eating more than he needs to survive marks him out as an enemy of society.

The idealistic socialism that Florent adopts is an indictment of the conspicuous consumption the Second Empire. And it is a theme that recurs in Zola. In La Curée, there is a remarkable scene of the piggishness of the noveaux-riches, who at a ball at the Saccard house, attack the buffet with stomach-turning piggery, so that even the servants are put off. As we will seine La Conquête de Palssans, the gluttony of the priest is seen as consuming the household, eating the protagonist and his family literally out of house and home. And in La Fortune des Rougon, it is Macquart's perpetual hunger that makes him resent the food on his own children;s plates as well as the (imagined) well-supplied table of the Rougons. His egotistical cries of revolution is nothing but the resentment of the Leans against the Fats is sen as a political issue.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Appetite and indigestion in Le Ventre de Paris

The greet paradox at the heart of Zola's Le Ventre de Paris is that between the hero. F;orient, who lives in a state of disgust and the crushing superabundance of food surrounding him. Florent. who arrives in the book and in Paris, fainting from starvation, ends up being welcomed into the Cloud-Cuckoo Land of the Quénu charcuterie, where the greasy taste, feel, and smell of fat has seeped into everything. As Zola puts it, "tout un monde noyé dans la graiss" (an entire world drowning in fat.).

And in spite of being well fed by his brother and sister, Florent remains hungry throughout the novel, refusing to fit in with the plump, gourmand company that surrounds him:
Non, la faim ne l’avait plus quitté. Il fouillait ses souvenirs, ne se rappelait pas une heure de plénitude. Il était devenu sec, l’estomac rétréci, la peau collée aux os. Et il retrouvait Paris, gras, superbe, débordant de nourriture, au fond des ténèbres

No, hunger had not left him . He searched his memory, could not remember one hour of fullness. He had become dry, with a shrunken stomach, his skin stuck to the bone. And he found Paris, fat, proud, overflowing with food, to be un the depths of darkness.

When he is given a seafood inspector's job in the market, his disgust gets even stronger.:
Florent souffrit alors de cet entassement de nourriture, au milieu duquel il vivait. Les dégoûts de la charcuterie lui revinrent, plus intolérables. Il avait supporté des puanteurs aussi terribles; mais elles ne venaient pas du ventre. Son estomac étroit d'homme maigre se révoltait, en passant devant ces étalages de poissons mouillés à grande eau, qu'un coup de chaleur gâtait. Ils le nourrissaient de leurs senteurs fortes, le suffoquaient, comme s'il avait eu une indigestion d'odeurs.

Florent suffered then from this pile of food, amid which he lived. The disgusts from the charcuterie came back, more intolerable. He had endured stenches as terrible, but these did not come from the belly. His narrow, skinny man 's stomach rebelled, as he passed the wet fish stalls, drenched in water, spoiling from a bout of hot weather. They fed him their strong scents suffocated him, as if an attack of indigestion hiy him from just smelling
This attitude is met with incredulity among those whose life is the preparation and sale of food, essentially everyone in the novel and especially his brother and sister-in-law, who exude the fat of their trade. His very thinness becomes a point of disgust among the other inhabitants of the Halles and, by implication, that of Second Empire Paris.

His alientation from most of those around him and his attitude toward food eventually enters into his politics – where his disgust at the material world fits in well with his unhinged, utopian socialism.

The only person who can at all sympathize with Fkorent's indigestion is the painter Ckuade Lantier, who loves the market for its rich colors of its contents, subjects for his still-life, nut who also has little appetite.
Puis, je déjeune ici, par les yeux au moins, et cela vaut encore mieux que de ne rien prendre. Quelquefois, quand j’oublie de dîner, la veille, je me donne une indigestion, le lendemain, à regarder arriver toutes sortes de bonnes choses. Ces matins-là, j’ai encore plus de tendresses pour mes légumes… Non, tenez, ce qui est exaspérant, ce qui n’est pas juste, c’est que ces gredins de bourgeois mangent tout ça !

Then I break my fast here –– at least through the eyes, and that is been better than eating anything. Sometimes when I forget to dine the night before, I give myself indigestion the next day by watching all sorts of good things arriving. Those mornings, I have even more affection for my vegetables ... No, look, this is frustrating, what is unjustness
that these bourgeois scoundrels eat it all!"

But what Claude converts into art, Florent converts into anger and desire for a political purge of the excess.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Anatomy of the Belly

Zola's Le Ventre de Paris (1873), the third novel in the Rougon-Macquart series, is a mix of two distinct genres of prose fiction. First. there is a pretty straightforward novel, where the protagonist (Florent), escapes from imprisonment in Devil's England, gets a job through family connections in the Les Halles, and after getting caught up in a socialist conspiracy, is arrested and sent off again.

The second stream in the book is what Northrop Frye in His Anatomy of Criticism (1957) termed "anatomy". Among other things, literary anatomies take delight in cataloguing and describing the features of the world around it. If novels are aimed at describing the social world, anatomies dwell on the objects that make up the material world.

Le Ventre de Paris is an in-depth portrait of the newly upgraded central food market, literally from top (the glass and cast iron roofing) to bottom (the sub-basements),. a prose poem delighting in vivid descriptions and long lists of the goods on sale. The tour ranges from a loving look at the contents of the Quénu charcuterie to the sights and and smells of the market for fresh-and salt-water fishes. It includes in-depth visits to the vegetable sellers, the fruiterers, the florists, the cheese sellers, the butchers, the bakers, and so on.

Part of this description is painterly. We see in part through the eyes of Claude Lantier, an avant-garde (Cézanne-like) painter who will figure as the hero of his own book later in the series (L'Oeuvre). We are meant to see vividly the colors, the shimmering of the goods, even in the darkness of pre-dawn and the shimmering of gas-light.

But Zola engages all our senses: smells (both pleasing and putrid but mist notable in the so-called "Cheese Symphony"), tastes (blood sausage to carrots), textures (as the various workers get their hands in the products they make prepare and serve), and noises (the early-morning cacophony, the bustle and gossip of the workers).

For the non-native reader, the vocabulary mountain is high, and while one might be tempted to skip over the various fishes or sausages, the fact is that the poetry, and the point, is in the details. This poem – which has no logical beginning pr end, run in parallel with the more traditional narrative of Florent's modest rise and fall.

The tone is Rabelaisian, both in terms of the wide and concrete vocabulary, and the sense of connection to the real, multi-sensory word, both wondrous and nauseating -- after all, the belly is at the center of both Gargantua and Le Ventre de Paris. Zola reintroduces the Rabelaisian into French literature.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Balzac, La Vendetta (1830)

Published soon after Mérimée’s Matteo Falcone, La Vendetta is another story based on Corsican “honor” and the murder of one’s own child in adherence to that code. It's probable that the Mérimée story inspired Balzac’s.

The Balzac novella is set not in Corsica but in near-contemporary Paris. Bartholoméo Piombo, feeling with his family from a blood feud in Corsica, makes his fortune due to his friendship with Napoleon. His artistic only daughter, Ginevra attends an art class full of young, wealthy ladies. She emerges as an inspired painter among dabblers.

At the early days of the Bourbon Restoration, refugee Napoleonic officers are proscribed and threatened. The artist/teacher hides Luigi, a handsome young officer, in a side room. Ginevra sees him, helps hide him, and falls in love. When he is introduced o her parents, it turns out that he is the son of the mortal enemy of Piombo, and while the modern Luigi is innocent of any wish to continue the blood feud, he is rejected. The couple elopes, and end up living in poverty in a garret. They have a child, but Ginevra wears herself down doing small painting jobs, as the couple and child starve and freeze. The well-off Bartholoméo, obdurate refuses them any help, and when he finally relents in order to see his grandchild. It is too late, Daughter and grandson die, for lack of resources he could easily have supplied.

  • In the free and easy society of the Bourbon restoration in Paris, where others change allegiance and principle on a whim, Piombo is this reminder of the rude, unflinching code of the maquis. The young lovers are explicitly compared to Romeo and Juliet. Typically (as with Grandet), the doting father is turned into a tyrant once his daughter opposes his will.

  • This is another Balzac story that takes place in the context f the world of painting. Ginevra is that rare female artist of promise. The artist who teaches her exclaims that one of her paintings is a masterpiece reminiscent of Salvatore Rosa, the pre-Romantic Italian painter. In spite of her talent, Ginevra can only find the most humdrum, ill-paying decorative jobs, the meanest work of the artistic world.

  • In Balzac we will see this patter of loving marriages and unloving marriages. The loving ones, as in this story, in Ferragus, in La Peau de chagrin, and other stories, end up crushing the couple. The loveless marriages (Eugénie Grandet, Goriot’s daughters, and La Femme de Trente Ans) have their own torments. In other words, most (all?) marriages are pretty dismal.

  • Napoleon himself appears as a character in the anecdotic start of the novella. He is presented as sympathetic, clever, and charming, Would such a portrait be allowed during the recently ended Bourbon restoration? I doubt it. This may be one of the first of many literary portrayals of Napoleon in France, at least since Waterloo.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Mérimée’s "Mateo Falcone" (1829)

This terse, disturbing tale of father killing son has ancient Roman resonance (Lucius Junius Brutus and Manlius Torquatus); nevertheless, it is set in the 19th century and in France, at least a nominal part of France – Corsica. The story was originally subtitled ‘‘Les Moeurs de Corse’’ (‘‘The Customs of Corsica’’), and it does have a flavor of an anthropological study. Basically, the father executes his only son for betraying a fugitive to the gendarmes; even though the father has no great liking for the fugitive.

Mateo Falcone portrays a world diametrically opposed the Paris drawing rooms of most of the books we’ve read, all the more remarkable because it is in the same country and time. The morality of the maquis, the undergrowth that covers much of rural Corsica, implies tight family bonds, vendetta, and an unrelenting idea of honor.

The maquis itself is a character in the story, “si épais et si touffus, que les mouflons eux-mêmes ne peuvent y pénétrer.” (so thick and bushy that the mountain sheep themselves can't penetrate it). The maquis is the refuge of the outlaw:

“Si vous avez tué un homme, allez dans le maquis de Porto-Vecchio, et vous y vivrez en sûreté, avec un bon fusil, de la poudre et des balles,… vous n'aurez rien à craindre de la justice ou des parents du mort.”
(If you have killed aman, go into the maquis of Porto-Vecchio, and you will live there in security, with a good fusil , powder, and bullets… you will have nothing to fear from the law or from the relatives of the dead man.)

In other words, to disappear into the maquis is to find certain refuge. Mateo Falcone, a prosperous shepherd/small landowner, owns a house a short distance from the edge of the maquis. With the gendarmes on his heels, the fugitive bandit (who cannot quite reach the maquis) seeks refuge in the house. When the ten-year-old son, Fortunato, left alone in the house, finally betrays him, he does so for a watch, a rare luxury for the boy. The gendarmes carry off the bandit as Mateo comes home.

The boy has betrayed the code of hospitality and the general refusal to help the authorities. He has to die, regardless of his young age and inexperience. The scene where Mateo kills, rather sacrifices, Fortunato is rendered as a sacrament:

“- Dis tes prières. - Mon père, mon père, ne me tuez pas. - Dis tes prières ! ” répéta Mateo d'une voix terrible.”
(Say your prayers . -Fathere, father, don’t kill me. –Say your praters, reoeated Mateo in a terrible vocie.”

Of this story, still included in “great short story anthologies”. rhe English poet and critic Walter Savage Landor called "Mateo Falcone" "the cruellest story in the world." His fellow French Romantics could have learned something from his terse style. But the biggest influence of Mérimée may be the way in which Romanticism sees the exotic, the alien, the primitive, nearby, in France, Spain, and Italy, without resorting to Gothic devices or far-off shires. In Mérimée, Falcone amd Carmen are even further from polite society, wilder than Atala and René in the wilderness of the New World.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Balzac's "Pierre Grassou” (1839)

This slight short story is centered on an amusing anecdote. The mediocre painter Pierre Grassou earns his bread, early in his career, by making copies of paintings by the Masters – Italian, French, Spanish, and Dutch. Later, an established portrait painter, he is brought to the private collection of his future father-in-law, an art loving bourgeois who made his fortune in manufacturing bottles. As it turns out, the whole collection, for which its owner has paid a small fortune over the years, is made up of the knock-off paintings that Grassou sold for next to nothing!

Balzac (like Zola) was at home in the contemporary art world, and this is one of several works (La Chat-qui-pelote, La Bourse, and La Vendetta, for example). It is most similar to La Chat-qui-pelote. Like that novellas it involves the marriage and courting of a daughter of the bourgeoisie by an artist. But is in almost every way its opposite.

The hero of Chat-qui-Pelote is portrayed as a handsome genius, at the forefront of his profession. By contrast, Pierre Grassou is generally considered a mediocrity, even by his fellow painters. Finally, he has some success at the Paris Salon with a mediocre, half-disguised copy of a Gerard Dow painted. That image of a condemned man getting his last haircut he has cleverly entitled “The toilette of a Chouan, condemned to death in 1891.” This painting of a Royalist hero about to be executed by the Revolution attracts the eyes of none other than Charles X and the Duke of Orléans, the latter of whom buys the painting. The implication is that the more advanced paintings of the better artists are beyond the king’s understanding. His reputation made.
Commissions follow. Grassou becomes a favorite portraitist of the bourgeoisie and his reputation only grows, as does his frugally managed nest egg.

(A further complication is that Grassou comes from Fougères in Brittany, in the center of Chouan country, and, not coincidentally, the site of Balzac 1826 novel Les Chouans, which got Balzac’s career started, and appealed to the Bourbon court.)

In any case, Grassou, unlike his brother painters (and unlike Balzac), manages his money, marries into the bottle makers’ family and a substantial dowry, and lives a life the opposite of Bohemian. His wife loves him dearly, but is rather plain in appearance. He has the good taste to appreciate his more avant-garde contemporaries, and gradually replaces the fakes in his father-in-law’s collection with their work, supporting them when they need money.

Being an artist in nineteenth century fiction means living a life of debt, mental anguish, alcohol, sex, and alternating feast or famine. The prudent Pierre Grassou is a notable exception.

Ce peintre, bon père et bon époux, ne peut cependant pas ôter de son cœur une fatale pensée : les artistes se moquent de lui, son nom est un terme de mépris dans les ateliers, les feuilletons ne s’occupent pas de ses ouvrages. Mais il travaille toujours, et il se porte à l’Académie où il entrera.
(However, this painter, a good father and a good spouse, could never remove a fatal thought from his heart: other artists make fun of him, his name is a term of scorn in the ateliers, the newspapers do not bother with his work. But he always has work, and he is on the path to the Academy, where he will be admitted.)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The de-Romanticization of Adultery: Emma Bovary and Renée Saccard

Zola’s La Curée was published in 1872, around 15 years after the notorious publication of Madame Bovary. It’s clear, in writing a novel centered on adultery, that Zola was playing off Flaubert’s work. Like Flaubert, Zola had to deal with censorship when the book started being published in a periodical.

There are some obvious differences, of course. Zola is dealing with the swank set in Paris and Flaubert with the humdrum provincial life of rural Normandy. And while Flaubert is documenting simple adultery, Zola compounds the act with quasi-incest (stepmother). After all, in the Paris of La Curée, garden-variety adultery is almost expected. Nevertheless, the stories are remarkably parallel.

The heroine of both books, Emma Bovary and Renée Saccard, were seen as scandalous in their day. Both women, restless and without responsibilities or direction in life, throw themselves into sensuality as an escape from boredom. They are in principle childless – Emma basically abandons hers, Renée loses hers to a miscarriage. At the same time as they are fooling around, as if to punish their unromantic husbands, they become fanatical consumers of luxury, far beyond what the household can afford, driving their husbands into bankruptcy (Bovary) or its brink (Saccard).

Both risk discovery by flaunting their all but public lovemaking. Their adultery should be obvious to their husbands, but one husband (Bovary) is too naïve, the other (Saccard) seems indifferent, deliberately look away for his own purposes. Both women are far more intense in their cravings than their more detached lovers. They eventually grow tired of that unrelenting neediness, in the end abandoning them.

Both novels skirt the edge of melodrama. Both heroines see their would-be tragic destiny foreshadowing in a visit to the theater. For Emma it is the crazed Lucia di Lammermoor that she projects herself onto. For Renée it is the incestuous Phèdre that she obsesses about, performed in the melodramatic style of the age.
When finally abandoned, Emma swallows arsenic. Instead of a swift and Romantic death, she suffers several days of severe and rather repulsive illness before she dies– a fate far from the pathos of the trashy novels Emma is addicted to.

For Renée, the act of self-destruction comes not at the end of the novel, but rather at the end of the first chapter. If Phèdre, who swallows poison to end her guilty life is tragic, Renée is simply bathetic. Her self-poisoning takes place in the sensual overload of the hothouse of the Saccard mansion. Feeling depressed and abandoned, she bites into the poison-milk-oozing “Tanghin de Madagascar”, and faints dead away, apparently dead. We later learn that she was quickly cured and that the dramatic gesture had no real impact. As in this case, when through the novel Renée tempts fate, fate does not seem very moved to do anything. In the end, she dies not of some jealous fury or headlong self-immolation, but rather of meningitis, a death dismissed in one sentence at the end of the book. The main interest is one who would pay off her outstanding debts. In both novels, the romantic passion is undermined by the very real question of who pays.

Money, which has no place in romantic fiction and very little in melodrama, is fatally important, far more than the sex, which would seem to be the main thene. Both ladies are lured into debt by fashion/cloth merchants, who tempt the ladies into extravagant debt that, in the end, has to be discharged by the husbands. Financial manipulators, whether on a provincial petty-bourgeois level or in the most spendthrift layer of Paris society, is the equivalent of the Furies or the Fates in these novels.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Hugo’s Bug-Jargal (1826)

Hugo’s first novel, Bug-Jargal, is striking, set in the Haitian slave evolution, It is very dismissive of both sides, The cruelty, greed, and entitlement of the white masters are not soft-pedaled; the black leaders of the slave revolt are shown as treacherous, foolish, and despotic. Both “civilization” and its opposite are portrayed as deeply evil.

Amidst all this is a strange central story of courtly honor. The white hero Leopold D'Auverney, nephew of a slaveholder, and the black hero, the one-time African prince Bug-Jargal, a rebel slave, begin as rivals for Leopold’s (very white) cousin. In the end, they mange to save each other’s lives several times each. In a sea of rascals, they both have the same sense of courtly obligation and grow to admire each other. In the end, Bug-Jargal is killed when he comes to turn himself in to the white army, under the ineffective protection of Leopold,

The description of Haiti is second-hand, though based on factual narratives. But we never get a real sense of place (no heat, no bugs, few details). The chivalric romance seems out of place with the more realistic flogging of slaves and torturing of white prisoners. The nominal heroine is offstage most of the time, survives the custody of the respectful Bug-Jargal with virtue intact, and serves more as a token of the connection of the two men rather than as a real person.

The story is a narrative framed by the familiar device of officers (here Frenchmen in the Napoleonic Wars) sitting around drinking and telling stores. Leonard’s story, some years later, at first amuses and then makes incredulous, then saddens ahis auditors.

On the whole, a pretty good start for a 24-year old youth who was still writing pretty dull verse supporting the Bourbon restoration. Bug-Jargal is presented as a powerful, intelligent noble savage –is there a positive portrait of a black man in European literature before that time?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Balzac’s La Fenne abandonée (1834)

This story of passion, pursuit, abandonment, and suicide strikes me as being very unBalzacian. This novella follows the tragic course of an aristocratic love affair and seems rather conventional stylistically. Except for a humorous and well described look at provincial society in Bayeux, the novella floats in a barely described upper-class milieu, not very deeply observed. The two main characters (Baron de Neuil and Vicomtese de Beauséant) are virtually the only people in the story, and they are immensely in love, but not very interesting in their vices, virtues, or habits.

It is telling that money is never an issue in the book. Neither of the lovers has any concern about income, and they buy and sell houses, run off to Switzerland, without any concern for cash (or for social obligations). In fact when the man finals is maneuvered by his mother into marrying a very rich heiress, it’s not at the case that he is saving the family fortune or has debts to pay off. Beyond that, the vulgar business of handling money is not even mentined in the novella.

Places are sketched briefly, interiors hardly described, even the complications of society and politics are kept at bay. It is odd to see a Balzac work with so little specificity, so little particularity. Even the earlier lives and families of the protagonists are barely sketched – though we will learn much more of the earlier history of Madame de Beauséant (the heroine) in Le Père Goriot, where she gets abandoned for the first time.

Beyond that, the story is based on the affair between a younger man (in his early twenties when the novella starts) and an older woman (in her early 30s). This is similar to other Balzac works, but even more so in regard to Balzac’s own serial liaisons with older, often aristocratic woman, many of them like Mme. De Beauséant already married. The vicomtesse is afraid she will be abandoned when she reaches an age where she is no longer so attractive, and she is, much as Balzac’s mistresses were. The irony is that it is the man, the abandoner, not the abandonee that commits suicide in eth shock ending

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Balzac, Le Message (1832)

In this novella, the impecunious narrator (clearly a pretty undisguised Balzac himself), climbs onto the impériale, the top, outside seats on a couch heading into the countryside. He is joined by another young blade and they soon fall into an intimacy, after revealing that they both are romancing older, married women.
Enfin, après avoir fait nos maîtresses jeunes, charmantes, dévouées, comtesses, pleines de goût, spirituelles, fines ; après leur avoir donné de jolis pieds, une peau satinée et même doucement parfumée, nous nous avouâmes, lui, que madame une telle avait trente-huit ans, et moi, de mon côté, que j’adorais une quadragénaire.

Finally, after having made our mistresses as young, charming, dedicated, countess, tasteful, witty, fine, after giving them pretty feet, smooth skin and even gently perfumed, we confessed – he, that his Madame X was thirty-eight years old, and I, for my part, loved a forty-year old.
The bonding, based on shared tastes, is immediate.

Suddenly, as the coach nears his destination, it overturns, and as the other man leaps in impatience jumps from the impériale, he is crushed. On his deathbed, he makes the narrator promise to bring his dying message to the mistress he was planning to visit, including returning compromising letters. The narrator also brings a lock cut from the young man’s hair.

He arrives, meets the cuckolded husband, the ravishing wife. E eventually, in a dream-like conversation when she enters his bedroom at night and wakes him, he delivers his friends’ last message, along with the letter, and the lock of hair. The woman secretly managed to give a welcome sum of money to the narrator inn thanks for his deed.

The story itself simple and, for Balzac, the characters just sketched. But the autobiographical links are obvious: Balzac was forever having affair with older married women, exploiting them financially, often several at the same time, The praise of women old enough to be their mothers by young lovers is the high point of the story, and the theme that persists through his fiction (and life).

Balzac, La Grenadière

This 1833 novella is a surprisingly delicate work, which approaches sentimentality but never crosses the line. It's named after a simple but beautiful country house on a hill overlooking the Loire, very close to Balzac’s native Tours. A significant portion of the novella is Balzac’s careful description of that landscape in all its fertile beauty. It is said that he wrote it one night.

What he does in the opening of the work is like a cinematic zoom in to the house in question, from its wider environment to the details of the gardens, the buildings, and finally the interior of the house itself. This, in a way, is typical Balzac, to elaborately dress the scenery before having the protagonists come on stage, and when they do, letting us inspect them from head to toe as well, before they actually open their mouths. Here we have the anachronistic effect of a camera zooming in from an aerial shot, something that I can’t imagine any author doing before Balzac.

The story itself concerns the raising of two sweet brothers in a little Eden and the slow death of their mother, a mysterious beauty. The boys are the fruit of her affair with an English nobleman, but it ambiguous why they were separated or what the issue of the marriage was. In any case, they are cast adrift with little money. Nevertheless, the mother, adored by her children, takes pins to have them educated both scholastically and morally.

The end of the story is sad but not lachrymose. The woman dies in bed after admonishing the elder brother to help the more innocent younger son. The elder enters the navy as a cabin boy, the other son, through whatever money can be scraped together, is sent to a collège in Tours.

The mystery of the story – who is this woman and why is she abandoned, what is eventual fate if the boys – is only partially resolved at the end of the story. The lack of a formulaic narrative solution (for example, the husband arriving at her deathbed, the children inheriting a fortune) makes the story sound like a slice of real life. The rude cross at her simple graveyard reads “CY GIT UNE FEMME MALHEUREUSE, morte à trente-six ans,” (Here lies an unfortunate woman, dead at age 36).

The ending of the novella is cinematic also. The older son stands at the rail of the ship he is assigned to as it sails away from the coat of France.
il regardait les côtes de France qui fuyaient rapidement et s’effaçaient dans la ligne bleuâtre de l’horizon. Bientôt il se trouva seul et perdu au milieu de l’Océan, comme il l’était dans le monde et dans la vie. — Il ne faut pas pleurer, jeune homme ! il y a un Dieu pour tout le monde, lui dit un vieux matelot de sa grosse voix tout à la fois rude et bonne. L’enfant remercia cet homme par un regard plein de fierté. Puis il baissa la tête en se résignant à la vie des marins. Il était devenu père.

he watched the shores of France, which quickly fled and disappeared into the bluish line of the horizon. Soon he found himself alone and lost in the middle of the ocean, as it was in the world and in life.
- Do not cry, young man! there is a God for everyone, said an old sailor in his deep voice at once harsh and good.
The boy thanked the man with a glance full of pride. Then he lowered his head resigning himself to the life of a sailor. He had become [the[ father.
He had become the man of the family, the father he never knew. He is launched.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The horror of the dream world: Nodier’s Smarra (1821)

This novella, with the alternative title of “les Démons de la nuit”, is a nightmare-based tale of horror that has links with German Romanticism and Gothic tales. It prefigures the dream narratives of Théophile Gautier and the Decadent movement later in the century, and anticipates Freud and Jung by a century.

It is also an early vampire story. Already in 1820, Nodier co-wrote a sequel to John Polidori’s pioneering and sensationally popular story “The Vampire”, and also came out with a play with the same title. Both were big public successes, and Smarra offers an even more extreme and dark story.

The narrative itself – said to be opium-induced – has the logic of a nightmare, of a Walpurgis night. That is to say, that time and place keep shifting, endless waves of voluptuousness and bloody cruelty, and logic has no place.

The first-person narrator is Lorenzo, a young man recounts a dream to his half-sleeping mistress. He has dreamed that he is Lucius, a young man of the ancient Roman empire, who, having studied Greek philosophy in Athens, goes to visit Thessaly, famous of its magicians. On horseback and at night, he passes through a haunted forest, loses his way in the labyrinthine underbrush, and falls asleep. His dreams, if they are dreams, are full of sensuality, a synesthesia at first of luxury, then of horror.

Lucius meets his dear and deceased friend Polémon, who recounts his daytime luxury in the afterworld, surrounded by sensuous female slaves, and his nightly blood-drinking torment by monsters, led by the vampiric demon Smarra

Here’s a small sample:
les mille démons de la nuit escortent l'affreux démon … Des femmes rabougries au regard ivre; des serpents rouges et violets dont la bouche jette du feu; des lézards qui élèvent au-dessus d'un lac de boue et de sang un visage pareil à celui de l'homme; des têtes nouvellement détachées du tronc par la hache du soldat, mais qui me regarde avec des yeux vivants, et s'enfuient en sautillant sur des pieds de reptiles...

*The thousand demons of the night escort the horrid demon… Stunted women with a drunken look; red and violet serpents whose mouths spurt fire; lizards who lift a human-like face above a lake of mud and blood; heads newly detached from the body by a soldier’s axe, but who look at me with living eyes, and flee, bouncing on the feet or reptile…)
This prose-poem pits the classical rationality of Lucius/Lorenzo against the irrationality and horror of the dream world. The use of extremely vivid language, dripping with perfume and blood and devoid of rational thought makes Smarra a monument of Romantic fantasy, blurring the line between reality and dream. There’s no pretense at a moral ending; the work just exists

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Henri III et sa Cour: the first Romantic drama

While Hugo’s Hernani, produced by the Comédie Française in 1830, is always accorded the bragging rights as the first successful French Romantic drama, it is in fact Dumas’s Henri III et sa cour (1829) that deserves the pride of place.

The Dumas play, performed in the same theater with some of the same cast, was a major triumph, and it’s full of some of the same elements as Hernani and later Romantic drama (period costumes, over-the-top rhetoric combined with everyday language, violent stage business, humor mixed in with grief).

But Hernani gets the acclaim thanks to three factors:

a) Hugo had proclaimed a theoretical justification for a new drama in his famous Preface to the unstaged (and unstageable Cromwelll Dumas notes in a brief foreword to his play that he has no theoretical pretentions, leaving that to others.
b) Hernani was in verse, in alexandrines yet, a direct attack on Corneille and Racine territory, while Henri III was in prose.
c) Hernani’s opening night witnessed a famous donnybrook between factions in the audience, the upholders of Classicism and Romanticism; Henri III, on the other hand, was acclaimed from the opening act on – including the enthusiasm of the soon-to-be King Louis-Philippe.

Dumas, who had a major theatrical career later eclipsed by his historical novels, was actually a pretty good playwright. Henri III is a little rough dramatically (he was just a rank beginner), but it has some very gripping moments, especially that the scene where the duke of Guise physically abuses his wife into writing the letter that will trap her lover, Saint-Mégrin. This scene, which Dumas in his memoirs tells us caused a palpable sensation. In eth audience, was a move away from the lack of direct onstage action of tragic and sentimental plays of almost two centuries of French drama. Moreover, except for the lover-hero. These are not the noble gentlemen of the heroic era – the king is a weak fool, under the thumb of his mother Catherine De’ Medici, Guise a monster, and the gentlemen of the court, vain fops.

The play is indebted to Othello, a sensation (both cheered and hooted) when English actors led by Kean visited Paris a few years earlier, showing a piece, albeit in a foreign language, that had been seen in the Rossini opera version or, worse, in the denatured adaptation of Ducis – in which, for example, the handkerchief gets replaced by a diadem. (In 1830, Vigny would produce a more literal – Romantic – translation.)

As with Othello, in Henri III a handkerchief is a key element in the jealousy of the husband, though it must be said that Guise is more an Iago than an Othello. The death of Saint=Mégrin (the lover, albeit offstage, resembles Iago’s treacherous attack on Cassio. And Guise’s confrontation with his wife resembles the strangling of Desdemona, though in the Dumas play, the heroine just faints away at the end. This happens as her husband calls out the window to the assassins who have all but killed Saint-Mégrin, throwing them the tell-tale handkerchief to strangle him:
Eh bien, serre-lui la gorge avec ce mouchoir ; la mort lui sera plus douce ; il est aux armes de la duchesse de Guise. :
(Well then, stop up his throat with this handkerchief; death will be all the sweeter for him; it bears the arms of the duchess of Guise/)
Henri III is full of gothic/Romantic trappings: locked doors, astrology, passionate love at first sight, meetings of conspirators, disguises, implacable revenge, a magic talisman. Most of these elements are rearranged and added to in Hernani.

One side issue in the play is the nature of the king’s “favorites”, the elegant young gentlemen who attend him. We know from historical accounts that these favorites, at least some of them, were lovers of the king, who was probably bisexual. And that was well known, if on the sly, by Dumas’s contemporaries. On fact, the censor objected that parents would have difficult time explaining to their innocent children what a “favorite” was. The play presents Henri and his friends as fops and dandies, but no hint of anything beyond that. In his later novel, La Reine Margot, the ambiguous sexuality of the Valois court is a little more in the open.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Balzac, La Bourse (1832)

This urban fairy tale is a pretty minor Balzac novella. Based as it is on a misunderstanding (she steals his purse, he thinks she’s a thief, but she only took it to embroider it). it reads more like Maupassant’s “La Parure” without the keen edge or rather like O. Henry's “Gift of the Magi”, the sentimental American version of Maupassant/

The hero, Hippolyte Schinner, is a newly fashionable painter, not unlike the hero of La Maison du chat-qui-pelote, written a few years earlier. The artist, who is clearly a projection of Balzac, is a tireless late night worker, breathing life into portraits and landscapes through the reproduction of carefully observed detail.

When he visits the apartment of the heroine, the daughter, the only child of am impoverished widow, he looks on to what no painter of that time would yet portray, a kind of genteel squalor.
Aucun peintre de mœurs n’a osé nous initier, par pudeur peut-être, aux intérieurs vraiment curieux de certaines existences parisiennes, au secret de ces habitations d’où sortent de si fraîches, de si élégantes toilettes, des femmes si brillantes qui, riches au dehors, laissent voir partout chez elles les signes d’une fortune équivoque.

(No painter of manners has dared to initiate us, perhaps from shame, into the truly curious interiors of certain Parisian existence, unto the secret of these dwellings ––from which women leave so fresh, so dolled up, so brilliant on the outside –– that inside betray everywhere a precarious financial situation.)
With a painter’s eye, the artist eyes everything (cracks, stains, dust, junked), yet we are told, decently, on the sly. With every detail of decay lovingly catalogued, this is the radical innovation of Balzac – to see the grimy, shoddy world with the idea of a painter is something I can’t imagine any writer more than vaguely sketching squalor before him.

Three other notes:

• The mother is a widow of a Napoleon-era hero, and her claims for a pension were denied after the Bourbon Restoration. It’s no coincidence that after the Revolution of 1830, here and elsewhere, Balzac starts writing with real sympathy for Napoleonic officers and their widows (see Une double Famille).
• Some of the same elements here as with La Maison du chat-qui-pelote. Schinner’s pals, the other artists, lead him to mistrust the mother and daughter, as in the earlier story they make fun of and then reject the innocent, unsophisticated new bride. We don’t see here what happens after the marriage; the story ends with the proposal.
• Like so many Balzac heroes, Schinner – with his Alsatian surname –– is an outsider who is in the process of conquering Paris by dint of genius and hard work. But unlike his counterpart in chat-qui-pelote and unlike a lot of Balzac heroes, he has no pretence at nobility – he is a bastard, the son of the daughter of an Alsatian farmer, seduced by a rich man – not even, it seems, a nobleman.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Notes on Zola's La Curée: The emperor rides by

This novel is so full of remarkable moments that I hardly know where to start.

Napoleon III puts in a few cameo appearances. At the end of Chapter Three, when the upwardly mobile Saccards are invited to their first Imperial ball, the emperor makes a formal entrance through the lined-up ranks of the guests. The beautiful, daringly attired Renée strikes him, and he stares at her in passing, with a rare gleam in his otherwise clouded and heavy=lidded eyes. He and his entourage buzz about her. The momentary encounter, we are told, was the high note of her life (“la note aiguë de sa vie.”)

Then he turns up right near the end of the novel. He is driven in his carriage through the Bois de Boulogne, coincidentally in the midst of the daily afternoon outing of the wealthy in their deluxe coaches. René observes him unseen from her coach
Renée trouva l’empereur vieilli. Sous les grosses moustaches cirées, la bouche s’ouvrait plus mollement. Les paupières s’alourdissaient au point de couvrir à demi l’œil éteint, dont le gris jaune se brouillait davantage. Et le nez seul gardait toujours son arête sèche dans le visage vague.
(Renée found that the emperor had aged. Under his large waxed moustache, the mouth was more softly opem. His eyelids had grown heavy to the extent of half-covering his dulled eyes, whose yellow-graty had become even more blurry. Only his nose still kept the dry ridge in his indistinct face.)
While the socialites on there own landaus and berlines quietly and ironically gawk, Saccard, walking by on foot, cries out in his Provençal accent “Vive l’empereur !” The emperor turns in surprise, seems to recognize him, and salutes shim ad he rides away.

As much as Zola detested Napoleon III and as much as he satirizes the freed and stupidity of French society of the Second Empire, this passage has a surprisingly elegiac tone. The end seems in sight – for the day, for the emperor, for Renée Saccard whose point of view we are guided by, and for the triumph of the society of the Second Empire, symbolized by this daily excursion in landaus and barouches owned by the wealthy and idle through the recently refurbished Bois de Boulogne That cavalcade of conspicuous consumption frames the beginning and end of the novel.

Renée sees a kind of poetic rightness to this brief encounter near dusk.
Il lui semblait que l’empereur, en se mêlant à la file des voitures, venait d’y mettre le dernier rayon nécessaire, et de donner un sens à ce défilé triomphal.
(It seemed to her that the Emperor, in mixingc in with the row of carriages just gave the last, needed ray, and to give a meaning to this triumphal parade.)
But for Renée, the sense of triumph is bitter and painful, as her empire, her triumph has all but faded.

Friday, July 30, 2010

La Curée and the theater

It seems like the majority of nineteenth-century French novels, at least the ones set in society, include a scene of two at the theatre (or opera). Le Père Goriot, La Dame aux Camélias, Le Rouge et le Noir, Madame Bovary, and many more. But it’s rarely the play that anyone is going to see– it's the other members of the audience, particularly the goings-on in the boxes, where the subtle play consists of what everyone is wearing, who is visiting with whom, and who is no longer talking to whom is the real show. The drama onstage hasn’t got much of a chance.

True, some male audience members (those in Nana or Les Illusions perdues) are watching what is going on onstage, but that is usually because he has or wishes to have a liaison with one of the actresses, singers, or ballerinas, not because of any innate interest in the performance or the play.

Zola’s La Curée is a big exception. There. two specific stage performances are described and reflect the changing moods of the heroine Renée, who has entered into a wild semi-incestuous affair with her stepson Maxime.

The first is Offenbach’s operetta La Belle Hélène, a big hit by that favored composer of the Second Empire. The operetta is a saucy retelling of the rape of Helen and was a giant success for the sexy (and notorious) female star, Blanche Muller (who serves as a model for Zola’s Nana). The story casts ancient myth as a Parisian adulterous adventure. Helen cuckolds the foolish Menelaus with the younger Paris, and runs away with him to Troy.

Renée is so taken with this operetta that she butchers the score on the piano, trying to imitate the raspy voice and the wiggling hips of the star (“cherchait à retrouver la voix rauque et les déhanchements de Blanche Muller.”) Maxime joins in the fun, imitating the actors. Their affair is at its height, carefree and spirited.

The second play is Racine’s Phèdre, performed by the Italian tragedienne Adelaide Ristori, the toast of Italy and France. The play is the tragic counterpart of La Belle Hélène, also a take on adultery in ancient Greece. But it cuts closer to Renée’s situation, where Phaedra’s desire for an adulterous liaison with her stepson Hippolytus, ends in both their deaths.

And the performance by the tragedienne moves her to the depths.
elle emplissait la salle d’un tel cri de passion fauve, d’un tel besoin de volupté surhumaine que la jeune femme sentait passer sur sa chair chaque frisson de son désir et de ses remords.
(She [Ristori] filled the hall with such a cry of wild passion, such a need for superhuman pleasure that the young woman felt each shiver of desire and remorse passing through her flesh.)
Not so Maxime, who mcoks Ristori ad just a big puppet, who hitched up her tunic and wags her tongue to the public just like Blanche Muller in La Belle Hélène. He sees the tragedy as a farce.

Renée sees the tragic potential of her own situation. a harbinger of the end of her affair with Maxime. As she becomes more desperate and the affair becomes more fraught, Maxime withdraws from her increasingly desperate embrace.

It is typical of Zola that the end of the novel and the end of the affair is neither tragic nor comic. Unlike Phèdre. Renée does not poison herself after a confession of guilt. (She tried – unsuccessfully – to poison herself out of sheer boredom earlier in the novel.) In fact, her husband. Saccard seems to deliberately ignore the affair even when the evidence is in front of his nose. Maxime does not perish either – he gets married to a hunchback heiress, inherits when she dies on their honeymoon, and reconciles himself with his father. Renée fades away, abandoned.

The next winter, we are told very abruptly at the end of the novel, Renée died from acute meningitis “Renée mourut d’une méningite aiguë” She dies with neither a tragic or comic denouement.

Monday, July 26, 2010

La Curée: the money plot

La Curée (The Kill, or better, Spoils of the Hunt) is the second novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, and it is, to my mind, an amazing novel. Structurally, it has two parallel plots, closely interlacing but quite distinct in style. It would not be far off to see he plots as centered around desire for money on the one hand and sexual desire on the other.

The money plot is a critique/satire of those who profiteered during the Second Empire exploiting Haussmann’s construction of the Grands Boulevards that tore up the map of Paris.

Central to that plot is the history of the second son of the Rougon family, who leaves the stagnation of the provinces and comes to Paris to pursue his fortune, like so many Frenchmen and French literary characters had before him, most notably in Balzac. But unlike Raphaël de Valentin , Eugène de Rastignac, or Lucien de Rubempré, he is no juvenile hero. He is already nearing middle age, is burdened with a wife and children when he arrives. Nor is he particularly handsome like those Balzac heroes or Julien Sorel – he is described as short, dark, and ferret-faced (chafouin), though he is pictures as having a certain “Southern” (Provençal) charm. . Nor is he an impoverished aristocrat (not even a pretender like “de” Rubempré ).

In real life, Zola, like Balzac, knew what it was to be the provincial come to Paris to make his fortune. And at this point in his life, Zola was still not a success, was still a starving artist in a cold city. Like the hero, he has come to Paris to conquer and has met discouragement and near-ruin.

But Aristide Saccard (né Rougon) is determined to conquer, even if he has to change his name so as not to embarrass his politically ascendant brother Eugène, and take a low-paying civil service job in the Paris streets department, thanks to his brother’s pull

Bitter at first, he gradually realizes is that, advance knowledge of the construction of the Paris boulevards gives an insider an opportunity to make a fortune. He learns the ropes in the department, and sets up a dummy company. He buys up properties that he learns in advance will be torn down, bribes the assessors, and gradually passes for one of the richest men in Paris. Meanwhile, his first wife conveniently dies, he marries almost at once Renée, the knocked-up daughter of an old and rich bourgeois family that is anxious to hush the scandal. In turn, Saccard gets as a dowry that serves as his stake so he can start buying up properties.

On one of the key scenes early in the book, Saccard envisions his future success. He takes his wife to a restaurant on the Buttes-Chaumont, with a window overlooking the city. Dazzled by a strange combined effect of a golden sunlight and fog, he exclaims:
Oh ! vois, dit Saccard, avec un rire d’enfant, il pleut des pièces de vingt francs dans Paris !
(Oh! Look, said Saccard, with a childish laugh, it's raining twenty franc coins in Paris.)

For Saccrd, that's as close as he ever gets to a poetic sentiment.
Looking down on the city, just like Rastignac does, at the end of Père Goriot, he see the very street grid of Paris as his toy.
j’ai bien dit, plus d’un quartier va fondre, et il restera de l’or aux doigts des gens qui chaufferont et remueront la cuve. Ce grand innocent de Paris ! vois donc comme il est immense et comme il s’endort doucement ! C’est bête, ces grandes villes ! Il ne se doute guère de l’armée de pioches qui l’attaquera un de ces beaux matins.

(I’ve said it, more than one neighborhood will be melted down, and gold will stay in the hands of those that heat up and stir the vat. Paris, this great innocent! See how immense it is and how sweetly it sleeps. How stupid, these big cities! It hardly is aware of the army of picks that will attack it one of these fine mornings.)
As often in Zola, the reality is far more difficult than the dream. We see Saccard’s machinations in some detail, managing to survive a world where the swindlers swindle the other swindlers, as well as the city. and while he gains the reputation of opulence and success, he is always just on the edge of bankruptcy.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Le Bal de Sceaux and class obsession

Le Bal de Sceaux (1829) is an early Balzac novella that has as is theme what will become the ever itchy sore of 19th century fiction in general: the class system. From Le Rouge et le Noir (1830) right up to Le Côté de Guermantes (1921), a shaken and constantly redefined old-time aristocracy constantly feels the need to hold on to its glamour, its exclusivity, in spite of the endless stream, of newly minted nobility and a more radical than ever economic redistribution. Worst of all, it’s so hard to spot the imposters from their manners.

At the heart of the story is the self-absorbed daughter of the comte de Fontaine, a once-impoverished aristocrat who has been rewarded for his loyalty to the crown (he was a leader of the Vendéan resistance) by the restored Louis XVIII. He manages to repair his fortune a little, and to get positions in the government for his sons and advantageous marriages for his daughters – for all but the youngest, Émilie.

Émilie, headstrong, beautiful, and with a devastating wit, looks around at potential husbands and dismisses them out of hand. The ones with suitable titles (peers of France) are fools or clods; the ones without title she refuses to consider. This in spite of the fact that her brothers and sisters have made happy marriages with well-off and refined children of the new bourgeoisie.

From the family summer home in the Paris countryside , This fairy-tale princess is brought by her loving siblings to the ball in the town of Sceaux. This rustic dance, which allows for wide variety of comers, is seen as a mildly adventurous diversion, and an occasion for the heroine’s witty put=downs. There she encounters her Prince Charming, a mysterious seemingly aristocratic young man whose good looks, courtly air, and ready wit recommend him to her. The problem? While his name, Maximilien Loungueville, sounds like he might be from a leading noble family, little is known about him. He teasingly resists Émilie’s inquiries, and she is ultimately convinced that he is worthy to marry her.

All that is exploded when, in company of sisters and sisters-in-law, she visits a Paris dress shop. There she is sees Maximilien clearly selling fabric to the shopkeeper, in other words acting as a bourgeois. The shocked, furious, and humiliated Émilie drops him immediately, refusing explanations.

It later turns out that Maximilien’s brother is a viscount and a peer of France; that Max had gone into business because of temporary problems with the family fortune; and that eventually he inherits his brother’s title and has his fortune restored. Emilie, meanwhile, in reaction, has married her elderly cousin, the comte de Kergaroüet – to whom she ends up acting more as nursemaid and companion than as wife, curtailed from the enjoyment of her youth.

The final scene, which reminds me of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin* (with sexes reversed), takes place in a fashionable drawing room in the Faubourg Saint Germain, as it is brought home to Emilie what she has missed:

en tournant la tête, elle avait vu entrer son ancien prétendu dans tout l’éclat de la jeunesse. La mort de son père et celle de son frère tué par l’inclémence du climat de Pétersbourg, avaient posé sur la tête de Maximilien les plumes héréditaires du chapeau de la pairie ; sa fortune égalait ses connaissances et son mérite : la veille même, sa jeune et bouillante éloquence avait éclairé l’assemblée. En ce moment, il apparaissait à la triste comtesse, libre et paré de tous les dons qu’elle avait rêvés pour son idole. Toutes les mères qui avaient des filles à marier faisaient de coquettes avances à un jeune homme doué des vertus qu’on lui supposait en admirant sa grâce

(she turned her head and saw her former lover come in, in all the freshness of youth. His father's death, and then that of his brother, killed by the severe climate of Saint-Petersburg, had placed on Maximilien's head the hereditary plumes of the French peer's hat. His fortune matched his learning and his merits; only the day before his youthful and fervid eloquence had dazzled the Assembly. At this moment he stood before the Countess, free, and graced with all the advantages she had formerly required of her ideal. Every mother with a daughter to marry made amiable advances to a man gifted with the virtues which they attributed to him, as they admired his attractive person)
Balzac, who himself had pretentions to nobility (tried to pass as de Balzac) and had affairs with aristocratic women, and eventually and famously married a Polish countess, was also from a family of drapers. He also worked hard for his livelihood. His characters are ever breaking through the defenses of polite society against parvenus, from Goriot’s daughters to Lucien de Rubempré. And the tale of Zola’s Rougon family, in three generations from provincial peasants to the toast of Parisian society followed the same path. In 1829, Balzac could hardly imagine the constant disruptions provided by both political and industrial revolution but in this bittersweet fairy-tale treatment he hits on the obsession of the age, his own obsession.

* Note that Onegin, published serially from 1826–1830 is exactly contemporary with this novella. It’s not at all probable that they influenced each other.