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