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.