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.