Thursday, March 25, 2010

Reading and the Internet

I've been reading almost all the French books for the Balzac–Zola project on a computer screen. More specifically, using texts available primarily on Wikisource. That strikes people as odd, unpleasant, even sacrilegious. but I have my reasons.

One is that I can snip sentences with word I don't fully understand and use them on my other blog on French vocabulary here. That's both faster and far more accurate.

Second, and I'll discuss this at some later post, I use a program called Lingro, so that I can instantly click on an unfamiliar word (and there are lots of them in realist fiction) and. in many cases, get an immediate definition in English. If that doesn't work, i have bookmarks on my browser to visit several good French -English dictionaries or online French dictionaries. Otherwise, i would either stop reading entirely to seek a dictionary or pretend that I know –kind of – what a taillis or an essaim is, and push on, both unacceptable.

But the biggest bonus in being online while reading is the instant access to information through Google and/or Wikipedia, a virtual bookshelf that deepens the reading immensely without interrupting it much. For example, when a character in Paris travels from the Chausée d'Antin to Saint-Sulpice, I can see precisely where they are on the map.

But even better is access to background material for cultural references casually thrown off by the author. Hera are two examples from Père Goriot, which I am reading currently.

When Eugène, the hero, gets invited to dine at the house of his cousin, the Vicomtesse de Beauséant, he has to control his amazement at the knavish dinner laid out for the three of them.

Monsieur de Beauséant, semblable à beaucoup de gens blasés, n’avait plus guère d’autres plaisirs que ceux de la bonne chère ; il était en fait de gourmandise de l’école de Louis XVIII et du duc d’Escars.

(Monsieur de Beauséant, like many blasé people, had scarcely any pleasure other than fine dining; in respect to gourmandizing, he was of school of Louis XVIII and the duc d’Escars.)

Louis XVIII I know about a little, along with the Bourbon restoration, and am not surprised to find him a devoté of the table. But the duc d’Escars and gourmandizing? Time to Google. A little reseaching gets us to the following anecdote from an English translation of The Science of Good Living by the famous gastronome Brillat-Savarin.
here .

Louis XVIII. invented a dish called Truffes a la purée d'ortolans. The happy few who tasted this dish, as concocted by the royal hand of Louis himself, described it as the very perfection of the culinary art. The Duc d'Escars was sent for one day by his royal master, for the purpose of assisting in the preparation of a glorious dish of Truffes a la purée d'ortolans; and their joint efforts being more than usually successful, the happy friends sat down to Truffes a la purée d'ortolans for ten, the whole of which they caused to disappear between them, and then each retired to rest, triumphing in the success of their happy toils. In the middle of the night, however, the Duc d'Escars suddenly awoke, and found himself alarmingly indisposed. He rang the bells of his apartment, when his servant came in, and his physicians were sent for; but they were of no avail, for he was dying of a surfeit. In his last moments he caused some of his attendants to go and inquire whether his majesty was not suffering in a similar manner with himself, but they found him sleeping soundly and quietly. In the morning, when the king was informed of the sad catastrophe of his faithful friend and servant, he exclaimed, "Ah, I told him I had the better digestion of the two."
Perfect– that indeed is gourmandizing, and this story was still current with Balzac and must have happened only a few years before the events of the novel. It adds a richness that a footnote could never do.

A litte bit later, Delphine de Nucingen invites the hero to accompany her to her box at the opera, since she had heard he likes Italian opera so much. She writes, "Nous aurons samedi la Fodor et Pellegrini, je suis sûre alors que vous ne me refuserez pas." (Saturday we wick have la Fodor and Pellegrini, I am sure you won't urn me down.

Some famous singers I supposed. I know that la Pasta and la Malibran are big at the time, but these two? A little digging gets me to an online edition of Stendhal's Life of Rossini, and viola!

Of la Fodor, who was the French originator of rôles written by Donizetti and Rossini, Stendhal writes:

madame Fodor ne pouvant pas faire cette cavatine belle, elle la faisait riche. Elle accablait de roulades et d'ornements supérieurement exécutés, les inspirations du maestro, et parvenait à les faire oublier. Voilà un joli triomphe! Rossini, s'il l'avait entendue, lui aurait répété ce qu'il dit au célèbre Velluti, lors de la première représentation de l'Aureliano in Palmira (Milan 1814): Non conosco più le mie arie. Je ne reconnais plus ma musique."

(Madame Fodor, unable to make this cavatina beautiful, made it rich. She overwhelmed the inspirations of the maestro with trills and ornaments masterfully executed, and succeeded in making us forget the original. There wast a pretty triumph ! Rossini, had her heard it, would have repeated to her what he said to the famous Velluti, aftertax premiere of Aureliano in Palmyra (Milan 1814) "I no longer recognize my arias.")
Of "the excellent," Pellegrini,we learn of his beautiful bass voice singing a cavatina from La Cenerentola "d'une manière délicieuse." We also learn that he started a school for Italian singing in Paris and that one of his pupils was la Fodor.

Discoveries like these and temptations (I had to force myself not to read on, at this time, in the Stendhal), are what make the relative discomfort of reading from my wide, bright iMac screen more of a pleasure than a pain. It slows down reading, but in a way that makes the novels all the richer.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Gobseck: Usurer or Capitalist?

Gobseck (first published in 1830) is a novella that glimpses into the life of a Parisian usurer. “Papa” Gobseck, whose origin is supposedly Dutch, with hints of Jewishness, is part of a gallery of desiccated old men in Balzac’s early fiction, along with Père Grandet and Père Goriot (all G’s!). Like Grandet, Gobseck is a brilliant calculating businessman, and like him a miser, though of different stripe, a man who combines probity and greed, cynical insight and avarice. And even a little generosity.

This is one of Balzac’s earliest peeks at the seamy side of Paris, the source of the money that floats the incessant consumption. While this book was published before the idea of a Comédie humaine, Balzac later tied it in to the one of the plot lines of Père Goriot itself. The most prominent debtor caught by the usurer is the Countess de Réstaud, Goriot’s daughter, who is supporting the extravagance of her lover, Maxime de Trailles hat dandy appears in the apartment of the moneylender, presenting a letter of credit from his mistress.
Le premier billet, valeur de mille francs présentée par un jeune homme, beau fils à gilets pailletés, à lorgnon, à tilbury, cheval anglais, etc., était signé par l’une des plus jolies femmes de Paris, mariée à quelque riche propriétaire, un comte.

(The first promissory note, valued at a thousand francs, presented by a young man, handsome youth with sequined vests, with a lorgnette, a tilbury, an English horse etc, was signed by one of the prettiest women in Paris, married to some rich landowner, a count.) We later see Goriot pay off one of the notes, from the outside in this eponymous novel, from the inside in Gobseck.

The man plot of the novella involves the financial craft with which the dying count of Réstaud, in cooperation with narrator, a lawyer, and Gobseck, manages to keep his fortune out of the hands of his wife and is lover. The financial trickery, as that in Eugénie Grandet, is suitably hard to follow. But it is significant that it is money and not love that drive the plot of the novella.

What Balzac is the great master of, the innovator in, is in his hard-nosed attitude to money and its importance as the engine of Paris society. And Gobseck, who understands all of this, can philosophize about it. The narrator outlines Gobseck's credo to the Count:

Le papa Gobseck', repris-je, 'est intimement convaincu d’un principe qui domine sa conduite. Selon lui, l’argent est une marchandise que l’on peut, en toute sûreté de conscience, vendre cher ou bon marché, suivant les cas. Un capitaliste est à ses yeux un homme qui entre, par le fort denier qu’il réclame de son argent, comme associé par anticipation dans les entreprises et les spéculations lucratives. A part ses principes financiers et ses observations philosophiques sur la nature humaine qui lui permettent de se conduire en apparence comme un usurier, je suis intimement persuadé que, sorti de ses affaires, il est l’homme le plus délicat et le plus probe qu’il y ait à Paris.

“Papa Gobseck,” I began, “is intimately convinced of the truth of the principle which he takes for a rule of life. In his opinion, money is a commodity which you may sell cheap or dear, according to circumstances, with a clear conscience. A capitalist, by charging a high rate of interest, becomes in his eyes a secured partner by anticipation. Apart from the peculiar philosophical views of human nature and financial principles, which enable him to behave like a usurer, I am fully persuaded that, out of his business, he is the most loyal and upright soul in Paris.”
Gobseck is a combination of the old moneylender and the new investor, usurer and capitalist, in just the time when the lines were getting fuzzy. While his contemporaries were writing about Renaissance princes, amorous poets, and the loves of counts and marquises, Balzac started writing about one of the stark realities that dominated his life (and everyone's life), money.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

V.S. Pritchett’s Balzac Biography

Published in 1974. Balzac, by the British critic and short-story writer V.S. Pritchett, became the standard English-language biography. The book is lavishly illustrated (with a score of expensive color plates) and relatively lively. It is, however, a disappointment.

Literary biographies are a strange breed. What matters with Balzac, what sets him apart, is the intense liveliness of his characters and his descriptions. After centuries of vague generalities and universalities in French literature, he leads into a world that is intensely detailed and palpable. But how he lived his life has a tangential relationship to his work. Yes, the facts of his life have bearing in the great books, but even if they didn’t. The books stand on their own.

This is particularly true of the obsessive, decades-long affair with Mme Hanska, the Polish/Ukrainian countess that Balzac eventually marries shortly before his death. This takes up an inordinate part of the biography. And one suspects it is partly because Balzac’s copious letters to Hanska survive. They are quoted at length in Pritchett’s biography, and I must say that I find them a lot less interesting than the occasional passage from Père Goriot or La Peau de Chagrin. In his fiction, Balzac is magical, in his correspondence, well, he is a letter-writer.

Mme. Hanska endless jealousy, Balzac’s obsession with her and other older ladies, the squabbling about money, his careless exploitation of others have an untidy repetitive narrative structure. It’s true that the infatuation with women higher in rank and fortune, the wastefulness, the manic midnight labors, the ambition to make it Parisian society are all elements dome the life that are translated into his novels. But the interest is the novels not in the life – people of far less talent can and did live similar vices, but they didn’t write a Comédie humaine.

It’s clear that Balzac was at turns charming and insufferable. Looked at objectively, he seems like a porky, vainglorious spendthrift and deadbeat, leaving a wake of debt and disappointment for everyone but his readers, But in the end, he could have lived the life of modest respectability and wedded fidelity without affecting the value of his work.

There are a few things that are nevertheless illuminating for the works. His family’s background as drapers meshes nicely with his obsession with cloth and clothing. His fascination collecting bric-à-brac is dramatized in books like Gobseck and La Peau de chagrin, as well in the detailed interiors of the rest of his fiction. His endless interest in money though he was himself a disastrous investor) is reflected in a way that the Romantics and the writers of social novels (Sand, Constant) would consider vulgar.

So the balance is out of whack. Pritchett quotes liberally from the early novels, but has little to say about le Cousin Pons and La Cousine Bette, and not much more about Les Illusions Perdus There’s almost nothing about his relationships with the politics or the literary movements of his time. And what an exciting time it was: the theaters were filled with riches, social classes were being redefined with astonishing speeds, riches were available and conspicuously so, the Industrial Revolution and railroads were changing life across Europe, writers (Lamartine, Hugo, Mérimée were suddenly important political figures, and the amazing sequence of ancien régime, Revolution, Empire, Restoration, and the July Monarchy made the particulars of everyone’s life ever more archeologically and sociologically interesting.

In the end, it’s the love affairs of Rastignac, the shady dealings of Vautrin, and the aspirations of Rubempré that matter, not those of their creator. Maybe no biography could reflect it, but Pritchett’s surely does not.