Saturday, August 6, 2011

Balzac, La Fille aux yeux d’or 1835

When I was a graduate student hanging around the library writing my dissertation, I met a fellow grad student working on a dissertation about one relatively minor Balzac novella. In contrast to my effort, which involved the whole history of Western comedy, his as based on one quasi-ogscure book. How could one fill a whole thesis on such a small topic? An imitation of Bathes’ S/Z? Now I understand why this novella could support a lengthy real analysis..

In its structure, La FIlle aux yeux d’or starts from the tradition of European “captive woman” comedies, a genre that includes Plautus farces, Spanish commedias, Mozart operas, Restoration comedies, and even a few Bob Hope/Bing Crosby film comedies. The basic plot includes a girl locked away and a young man who has fallen in love with her. Between them stands a keeper, whether a father, a husband, a guardian who plans to marry the girl, the master of a harem, amd/or their deputies (including duennas, eunuchs, and jailers. The props includes barred windows, fortress-like houses, armed guards, even snapping dogs. The two young lovers have communicated only in passing, thanks to the precautions of the keeper, but nevertheless are deeply in love. The hero finds way to surmount the barriers and gets access and/or runs off with the girl, by disguise, bribery, ur other stratagems, often involving a tricky servant.

This is the plot of over 50 plays, librettoa, and stories that I have read, and I suspect it is the plot of hundreds and hundreds more. These rescue narratives are often set in the world of Orientalist fantasy (take Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail). Most often they are set in the Muslim world or in a Spain that still has Moorish overtones (Barber of Seville) , but also in Italy, France, and/or England.

La FIlle aux yeux d’or embraces, then subverts all these conventions. The girl is surrounded with high walls, a duenna, Blackamoor servants, and snarling dogs, and seems to be under the protection of a Spanish noblemen residing in Paris == so much the tricky servant of the hero finds out. The girl falls head over heels with him ar once when she sees him in her rare accompanied walks in the park. They arrange to meet elsewhere in an orientalized bedchamber, where they make passionate love. He later, in an attempt to carry her off, breaks into the house

But the basic story end there. The bored young man (the dandy de Marsay) has no interest in marrying the girl; she’s just a greater challenge than the usual Parisian seductions. The girl’s attraction to him, it turns out, is the striking similarity between him and her keeper. And that keeper, it turns out, is not only a lesbian, but also de Marsay’s unknown half sister. Furthermore, de Marsay arrives just in time to see his half-sister murdering the unfaithful slave, stabbing through the chest.

Instead of the rescue narrative with traditional marriage, this is simply a cynical seduction that ends in death, Even the death won’t be avenged – it has gone an erotic dream world to a nightmare world, but De Marsay has no wish to get involved. When a friend asks what became of the girl with golden eyes, he ansers laconically

elle est morte … de la poitrine.

she is dead ,,, [Problem with] her chest


Thursday, August 4, 2011

Balzac, “Le Réquisitionnaire” (1831)

“Le Réquisitionnaire” (The Draftee) is a slight short story has some typically Balzacian elements: the provincial society west of Paris (here in Carentan, Normandy), the all-too-recent Reign of Terror, and its effect on the aristocracy.

The heroine, the widow Madame de Dey, has retreated to this quiet town, hoping that its innate conservatism will resist the worst of the Terror and allow her to preserve her estate for her son, who has emigrated to serve the exiled Bourbon monarchy. She receives a letter from the son informing her that he is in prison in Paris, caught in some secret mission, though he has made plans to escape and will arrive in Carentan in disguise as a draftee in three days.

The tale has strong elements of suspense, growing suspicion, and sudden reversal, In Balzac’s provincial society everything gets noticed, and the unusual purchase of a hare in the market almost gives the game away. All the town’s society, including the agent of the Terror (a young man interested in marrying the widow), conspire to keep the secret. In the end, after a skillful narrative twist, both mother and son are dead,

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Zola, La Faute de l’abbé Mouret (1875)

This is no Naturalist work. La Faute de l’abbé Mouret stands out as unique in the Rougon-Macquart series. It does not detail, as most other Zola novels do, the deterministic effect of social conditions and heredity on human action. Far from being guided an intensified realism, this novel is a symbolic romance, a kind of Paradise Lost, with the two main characters taking the roles of Adam and Eve in the Garden before and after the fall.

That garden, an overgrown Provençal folly built by some long-forgotten nobleman, contains in it an encyclopedic inventory of vegetations, a collection that no climate could ever support in one place. The hero is more Tristan or Tannhäuser than Étienne Lantier or Eugène Rougon.

This book combines ecstatic, mythic, High romance elements with an anatomical cataloguing the natural world. Virtually every imaginable fruiting and flowering plant, along with fungi, ferns, and conifers, is described. These plants provide s sensory overload of sights, smells, tastes, feels, and (sometimes even) sounds – Zola's typical synaesthesia taken to a new extreme. And the smells and tastes range from sweet to bitter, from wholesome to corrupt and fetid.

The garden/estate is called Paradou (hint, hint), and is in habited by a mysterious elusive virgin, at one with nature, a sylph named Albine. Outside the garden wall exists the real world, a dry, subsistence-level Provençal village. The hardscrabble inhabitants have little use for the poor parish church, to which the hero, Serge Mouret, a devout young curate with a delusive case of Mariolatry, has been assigned. The austere Mary-worship is unmistakably sequel. He eventually gets so depleted by his religious ecstasy that he falls into a come. He is transported by his cousin, Doctor Pascal Rougon, to the enclosed garden.

There Albine murses him with his growing enjoyment of the lush beauties of nature, outdoor exercise, and a near-complete forgetting of his religious ecstasy. In the labyrinthine garden, the plants offer up food for body and soul, and all gets sampled. Finally, it all leads up to a sexual liaison.

At that point, "Adam" is rescued from the "Garden of Eden." He reacts in horror to his experiences, and becomes even more ascetically religious, this time substituting his Mary-worship with a self-identification with the crucified Jesus. The rejected and bereft Albine kills herself, seemingly through an overdoes of calla lilies, in a bank of which he buries herself.

The borderline between Naturalism and Symbolism can be thin, and it is significant that these two literary movements are contemporary. It’s as if the intensification of the real world to the highest degree tunes form an objective sociology to a distorted magnifying glass, in the way that great twentieth century literature (Joyce, Eliot, Kafka) start form the intensification of everyday life and reach into myth and symbol. This tendency keeps recurring in Zola; and in Father Mouret it is at its most intensive.

The garden is presented as an alternative to the desiccated Catholisicim of Mouret. Albine explains her animistic faith to the waking priest:
Voyez-vous, lorsqu’on vit tout seul, on finit par voir les choses d’une drôle de façon. Les arbres ne sont plus des arbres, la terre prend des airs de personne vivante, les pierres vous racontent des histoires. Des bêtises, enfin. Je sais des secrets qui vous renverseraient.

You see, when you live alone, you end up seeing things in a funny way. Tees are no longer trees, the earth intakes on the airs of a living person, the stones tell stories. Fooolishness, really. I know secrets that would bowl you over.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Balzac, :Melmoth reconcilié" (1835)

This story is Balzac's sequel to the immensely successful Anglo-Irish gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). In that gripping but rather tediously overwritten novel, Melmoth has signed his soul over to the devil in return for along life and superhuman power. (The story is in the mode of the Wandering Jew, the Count of St. Germain, Joseph Balsamo/Cagliostro, Faust.) Wandering the earth, he tries to persuade someone to take over the bargain so he can die in peace. In addition, the original is a strong criticism of Catholic monasticism and the Spanish Inquisition.

Balzac's version takes place nit in some Irish castle or Spanish dungeon but in the contemporary Paris of the Comédie humane, where the protagonist, Rodolphe, is the cashier at the banking house of Nucingen, a war veteran who has enormous sums passing through his hands, but who takes home a modest salary.

We soon learn that ge is keeping a mistress – as ever in Balzac a crushingly expensive proposition. As he starts to pull off a swindle at the banking house, he is approached by the all-knowing Melmoth who shows him how his theft will be discovered and how he (Rodolphe( will languish in jail, unless he takes on the curse.power of Melmoth.

Faced with a treacherous mistress and seemingly inevitable ruin, he makes the switch. Melmoth goes off to receive last rites and die in peace. Rodolphe at first enjoys the new powers, including the ability to obtain money and sex at will, and the ability to read others minds. He soon becomes satiated, bored, then desperate to pass on the curse and die himself.

We see a series of passings on of the curse, for lesser and lesser goals, until it finally just peters out. The point seems to be that the triviality of Parisian life can't sustain the cosmic melodrama of the original story.

I find the best part of the story is the description of the love affair, how the mistress comes to expect ever treater luxury and the cashier is too dazzled, too pround, and too scared, to explain that ether is a limit to how much he can spend on her. This fits in with Balzac's doctrine (all too true in his own life) that luxury is purchased at a horrible price in anxiety and toil:
sous le luxe inaperçu de la plupart des ménages parisiens, reposent d’écrasants soucis et le plus exorbitant travail.

the unnoticed luxury of most households in Paris rest upon crushing worries and the most outrageous work

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Balzac, "Autre Étude de femme" (1842)

While there is no explicit connection between this story and Balzac’s (1830) "Étude de femme”, several common issues strike me.

First, the setting is in the dazzling high society of the most fashionable and titled Parisians. I must say that Balzac is at his most original when discussing the commercial classes, provincials, the artists, and the down-and-out, areas he doubtless more familiar with. I have a feeling that the glamour of the Duke of this and the Princess of that is a little too tinselly at times. Rastignac in the boarding-house and on the way up, for example, is far more interesting than the established Rastignac.

Second, the narrative approaches of the two stories are related. In “Étude de femme”, the narrator is Doctor Horace Bianchon, that raisonneur figure who moves lightly from high society to the poorhouse, an observer and scientist.. In "Autre Étude de femme", the narrator is also clearly Bianchon. (Furthermore, this work takes one of Balzac favorite narrative forms, a conversation after dinner (like “Une Conversation entre onze heures et minuit” and La Maison Nucingen). Several stories (both about unfaithful women punished) and a discourse follow, the story tellers and hearers are familiar names from the Comédie humaine. (de Marsay, Montriveau, Blondet, d’Arthez, Nucingen among others.)

The discourse is on the subject of society women, particular the definition of the term “une femme comme il faut”, the very specific society lady that Balzac is obsessed with. The pretext is that several foreigners at the dinner don’t quite understand the term. The days of the grande dame are finished, according to journalist/politician Émile Blondet., the days when a woman with the right family and fortune could do what she wanted. What has taken her place is the much more constrained “femme comme il faut”, a woman admitted to the best society, a woman of the greatest taste and grace, but one whose life is severely hemmed in.

The woman “comme il faut” may be of noble birth, but this is not a requirement. However, unlike a grande dame of the old aristocracy, she is held to the strictest standard of beauty and fashion.
vous voyez la figure fraîche et reposée d’une femme sûre d’elle-même sans fatuité, qui ne regarde rien et voit tout, dont la vanité blasée par une continuelle satisfaction répand sur sa physionomie une indifférence qui pique la curiosité.

you see the fresh and rested face of a woman sure of herself without conceit, who does not looks and yet sees all, whose vanity, jaded by a continual satisfaction, renders an intriguing look of indifference to her face.
For every aspect of her life, where she goes, what plays she attends, what clothes she wears, who she marries, who she visits with, this woman must obey a code – no less than for what lover she takes and the course of the affair. This code creates the fine borderline between the scandalous and the fashionably daring, a borderline repeatedly exploited by her lovers.

Little of this, it is made clear, is intended for the pleasure of the woman in question. The victor is always the ruthless young man (and de Marsay’s after dinner tale about the punishment of his unfaithful first mistress illustrates this), The code of the woman “comme il faut", it is made clear clear, is as prescribed as is that of an English “gentleman”. For the young French men, provided they have money, no such narrow code exists.

Balzac, "Étude de femme" (1830)

This rather minor story centers on a misdelivered letter, a declaration of love that gets delivered to the wrong woman. Eugène de Rastignac is the sender, intending that this love letter go to his current mistress, Madame de Nucingen. (The story antedates Père Goriot, so it has a rough, distant sketch of part of that affair,) But, having flirted the night before with the somewhat prudish but beautiful Marquise de Listomère, he sends it off to that lady.

She is flattered by the attention, and prepares to have the pleasure of putting him in his place. He arrives and informs her of the mistake, which turns out to be a blow to her vanity. In the end, it is not Rastignac who suffers from his blunder, but rather the Marquise, who has a "petite cries nerveuse."

Women in Balzac tread the line between accusations of looseness and prudery. The Marquise's dullish husband is clearly the kind of complaisant husband under whom she could easily conduct an affair – and the dandies have made there attempts. She is "vertueuse par calcul, ou par goût peut-être." (virtuous by calculation or perhaps by taste.) Like many Balzac woman, she is in a no-win situation. snd her virtue is seen as somehow pathological.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Le Parnasse contemporain (1866)

In 1866, France was in the midst of radical changes. The Industrial Age was in full swing, with new factories, railroads, steamships, telegraphs, all deeply changing not only the economy, but also the geography and the society of the France. France was increasing its grasp on Algeria and making progress in exploring and colonizing sub-Saharan Africa as well. German reunification and expansionism were presenting real threats to France, with a big war clearly in the offing. At home, conflicts between Napoleon III and liberals were increasing, as were tensions between the Church and secularist forces, all compounded by growing Marxist fervor among the working classes. The map of Paris had been redrawn by Haussman, and, as Zola paints it, the city, from its slums to its mansions, was in a constant state of change.

In the same year, the first edition of Le Parnassee contemporain was published, a collection of some 200 poems by 37 poets, among them the alredy famous (Gautier, Baudelaire) and the soon-to-be-famous (Verlaine, Mallarmé), not to mention a whole tribe of midrange poets of reputation, including Héredia, Mendès, Prudhomme, Banvile, Coppée and many others). The volume stands as a showcase of the best in French poetry at the time.

But those times of social change are hardly reflected in the poems. Leaving aside the efforts of Gautier and Baudelaire, most of the poems in the collection reflect an escape from the contemporary. There are scores of nature poem, with such titles as “L’hiver”. “Nuit d’hiver”. “Lune d’hiver”, “Journée d’hiver” .

There are a number of poems on classical mythology, and a few that range toward Hindu mythology. Many poems are about faithless mistresses, disappointed love, and a few about death. The diction, for the most part, is pretty modest in range, not at all reflecting the enormous vitality seen in the prose of the era, for example – there are almost no colloquial expressions, regionalisms, or foreign borrowings. Few of the poems are deliberately difficult linguistically, few tell a story, few have any humor at all. In terms of format, most are sonnets, and most are in alexandrines. Almost all of them are timeless in the worst sense, betokening a desire to avoid the complications are contemporary life.

I confess that much French poetry leaves me cold -- in contrast to English and German verse. But these Parnassian poems, with a handful of exceptions, seem extraordinarily bloodless and shallow – nor often clever.

One final carp: the word azur must occur in over one third of the poems, a bit of poetic diction that seems more at home in the 18th century, even as the sky in Paris was turning brown from soot.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Birotteau and the theater of high finance

When Balzac lays out the nature of a bankruptcy proceeding and, by extension, of all of the activities of high finance, he likens it to a theatrical performance.
Comme toutes les pièces de théâtre il offre un double spectacle : il a sa mise en scène pour le public et ses moyens cachés, il y a la représentation vue du parterre et la représentation vue des coulisses.

Like all theater pieces, it offers a double spectacle: there is a shoe aimed at the public and another show that is hidden, there is the performance seen from the front of the house and the performance seen from backstage.
In other words, there is a ritual performance for the consumption of the general public; the real insiders know that the reality is quite different, with special rules and a not easily apparent distribution of power. Woe to those like César Birotteau who might be tempted to believe that the performance is real. Fortunately, he has friends who know how the system works, and can guide him through the realities, make deals with the people with real power and observe the forms for the rest.

In a larger sense, the whole financial world is presented as a carnival show to lure the gullible. The apparently random chances in the money market are, Balzac repeatedly shows, the result of the backstage manipulations of the real masters, the bankers and the usurers. The show of probity and respectability from the financiers is just a show, while backstage ruthless greed reigns.

Du Tillet, the principal villain of César Birotteau, stage-manages the ruination of the perfumer by setting up a tempting but disastrous investment, while remaining out of sight. When he does encounter Birotteau, it is with the greatest feigned sympathy and the offer of financial aid, along with even more ruinous advice that is aimed at grabbing the one saving play for the perfumer, Anselme Popinot’s hair tonic business. He plays the part so well that Birotteau never really understand the cause of his ruin.

Birotteau goes to borrow to among others to the brothers Keller, the heads of a major Paris bank. The one brother, the onstage performer for the firm, is all smiles, encouragement, and graciousness, in his beautiful office. Birotteau is sent to the backstage brother, the one who runs the real operations of the bank, who, in a cramped dark office in the bowels of the building, is mean and uncompromising. Again front-of-house versus backstage

The idea of the dual realities is a forerunner of the theories of the 20th-century Canadian-born sociologist Erving Goffman, whose Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) elaborates a whole theory of the dramaturgy of social interactions. While the theatrical metaphor is commonplace, Goffman stresses several unique issues: One is the importance of the stage set (such as Keller and Du Tillet’s elegant furniture and trappings), and this concept of becoming successful by looking successful is a constant in Balzac, and well suited to his keen eye for superficial detail. For example, is so bowled over by Du Tillet’s surroundings that he is unable to analyze what is happening.

Another key is the near for teamwork among the performers to keep the illusion alive. The wolves the financial troupe in Balzac, whatever their individual relations, are happy to keep up the illusion, and not let outsiders into the game. More specifically, Du Tillet has to give lessons to his talkative front man for the swindle, in order to keep his performance credible and avoid over acting.

In awiser sense, most of Balzac’s Paris novels are based on the tension between an apparent reality of glamour and comfort, and an ugly reality – death, penury, debasement– lurking just beneath it.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Balzac, César Birotteau (1837)

Balzac's Histoire de la grandeur et de la décadence de César Birotteau is both a fairy tale of bourgeois virtue and an in-depth look at the details of French bankruptcy law in the nineteenth century.

As so often in Balzac, the minutiae of getting and spending are chronicled in numbers – from the first franc earned from a new cosmetic product to the detailed costs of Birotteau’s ruinous party in his new lodgings. We are led through the economics of the launch of a new hair elixir, with breakdowns of the expenses for supplies and packaging, the publicity costs, and the split between wholesaler and retailer. Above all, we see the brutal details of the repayment made by Birotteau and his family through the sweat of their brow.

This is something new to French literature, I think. You can see something like it in Defoe – this de-sentimentalization of money. In thus book, money is not acquired offstage, it is not just the by-product of some rents or bonds or the result of an inheritance, it is earned coin by coin over the counter of a shop. In fact, Birotteau’s problems start when he starts getting into vast non-tangible speculations, and tries to become a rentier rather than a shopkeeper.

Aside from the complex banking maneuvers. there is a detailed description of the financial ecosystem: usurers, respectable bankers, notaries, straw-men, bankruptcy judges. There a long section the current bankruptcy laws and their insufficiencies – a topic Balzac was personally aware of.

Ob the other side. the basic story is a pure fairy tale: the plucky (and club-footed) prentice/clerk Anselme Popinot, who saves the day and wins Birotteua’s beautiful daughter. is set against the evil and suave former apprentice-turned-banker, Du Tillet, who sets out to ruin the good-natured Birotteau, who knows too much about Du Tillet’s dishonesty.

If César loses his footing when he aimed too high, Popinot’s combination of hard work, careful spending, and a brilliant marketing and sales campaign manages to build a second fortune. It is clear that Balzac sees Popinot as a newer, savvier businesman than his ex-boss.

Incapable de mesurer la portée d'une pareille publicité, Birotteau se contenta de dire à Césarine : " Ce petit Popinot marche sur mes traces ! " sans comprendre la différence des temps, sans apprécier la puissance des nouveaux moyens d'exécution dont la rapidité, l'étendue, embrassaient beaucoup plus promptement qu'autrefois le monde commercial.

Unable to measure the scope of such advertising, Birotteau merely said to Césarine: "This little Popinot is walking in my footsteps!" without understanding the difference in the times, without appreciating the power of new business approaches whose speed and scope were grabbing the workd of commerce more speedily than ever before.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Balzac, La Vielle Fille (1836)

Les gens de province possèdent au plus haut degré l’art de distiller les cancans.
People from the provinces possess at the highest degree the art of distilling gossip.

This tale of a provincial marriage is set in Alençon, a sleepy, reactionary town sitting between Normandy, Brittany, and the Loire Valley. The pursuit of the old maid in question, an ignorant, silly, but well-off heiress takes the form of a political struggle. One of the two main suitors is an impoverished and graceful old-fashioned member of the old gentry, in good favor with the Royalist party of the Bourbon restoration. The other is a brash man of low birth who made his money supplying Napoleon’s armies while in Paris (and, we are lead to belive, conning it), and seeks to become the spokesman for the Liberal cause in a heretofore conservative town, dominated by the ci-devant nobility and the Church.

Several days each week, the old maid maintains a salon in her richly appointed mansion, a salon that is a time=capsule of pre-Revolutionary manners. She is the darling of the conservatives, being the most utter example of provincialism:
car elle s’était encroûtée dans les habitudes de la province, elle n’en était jamais sortie, elle en avait les préjugés, elle en épousait les intérêts, elle l’adorait.
for she was encrusted in the habits of the province, she still had never left it, she shared its prejudices, she espoused its interests, she adored it.
The two men duel for advantage, and the liberal takes possession through a combination of great timing and a horrid embarrasment for the old maid. Upon their marriage, he basically usurps her fortunes. redecorates the hosue (the latest bad taste from Paris replaces the old-fashioned bad taste), reduces her independence, takes a mistress. and climbs to power in the prefecrure. Ub rge oisusruve side, he revives the city’s clothtarde, insituting a spinning factory and reviving the moribund economy.

Marriage as so often in Balzac is a business deal, and a deal that an unworldly and sentimental woman is certain to lose at. Such deals often end up squandering carefully built-up fortunes, on the other hand they are a major engine of economic growth, or at least shakeup. Money in Balzac is always in circulation, and the strategies of prudence and even miserliness always end up fueling a maelstrom of new spending and redistribution.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Balzac, “Facino Cane” (1836)

This short story is a Venetian fantasy, reminiscent of the history of Casanova and not unlike Balzac's own Sarrasine (1831). at least in its heightened Italian setting. The narrator hears the story of the life of blind musician, who claims to be a Venetian nobleman with an infallible nose for gold, the hero of adulterous adventures, stolen fortunes, a prison escape, and sudden blindness.

Several points of interest: the escape from an impregnable prison is a trope of Romantic fiction, Casanova's famous escape over the roof (leads) of the Venetian prison may be the immediate inspiration. But the patient digging away with a primitive tool reminds me of that pan-European Gothic blockbuster, Charles Henry Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), a book that Balzac had recently written a sequel to (Melmoth reconcié, 1835). Of course, Dumas's subsequent Comte de Monte-Cristo (1846) is the most famous of the digging-out-of-prison stories, and such prison escapes or near-escapes are a staple in Dumas (La Dame de Monsureau, La Reine Margot, and L'Homme au masque de fer.)

The unusual device here is that the hero is clued into his (dead) predecessors' nearly-completed excavations by his ability to read Arabic graffiti left by a former cell occupant, a skill the hero picked up as the scion of a merchant family in the Mediterranean.

The nameless narrator is a poor middle-class intellectual, a scientist who lives among the working classes of the Marais. blending in well enough to be able to closely observe the working classes, which he does "scientifically".

Une seule passion m'entraînait en dehors de mes habitudes studieuses ; mais n'était-ce pas encore de l'étude ? j'allais observer les mœurs du faubourg, ses habitants et leurs caractères. Aussi mal vêtu que les ouvriers, indifférent au décorum, je ne les mettais point en garde contre moi ; je pouvais me mêler à leurs groupes, les voir concluant leurs marchés, et se disputant à l'heure où ils quittent le travail. Chez moi l'observation était déjà devenue intuitivel

A single passion pulled be away from my studious habits, but wasn't it even more study? I observed the manners of the faubourg, its inhabitants and their characters. As badly dressed as the workers, indifferent to decorum, I did not put them on guard against me; I could join in their groups, see them conduct business, and argue at quitting time. In me, observation had already become intuitive.
The scientific analysis of the working classes by a sympathetic intellectual -- this is the revolution of nineteenth century literature. He tells us at one point that the story of the blind Venetian is just one among many that the has gathered. Like Balzac himself, who could blend in with al ranks of society – as portrayed by literal invisibility in La Canne de M. de Balzac (also 1836) –, the narrator acts as a kind of "nobleman in disguise" figure, another staple of romantic tale-telling.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Dumas, Les trois Mousquetaires (1844)

Les trois Mousquetaires certainly has had the biggest impact of any 19th century French novel. Teh imahe of the four friends with crossed swords, tabards, and plumed hats, is unmistakeable. The novel spawned a plethora of after-products: Dumas himself massed a hit play out of it, and ether are been a stream of musicals, novel sequels and prequels, parodies, video games, a candy bar, and especially films– over 50 films in a dozen countries all based on the novel in some way of other, including: a cartoon version with Mickey, Donald, and Goofy: a German version called Sex Adventures of the Three Musketeers; a Spanish language version called Three and a Half Musketeers (no. the half is not a dwarf version of d'Artagnan, but rather a faithful dog). I assume that many of these films are dreadful -- and the previews for a brand-new 3D version I saw last week at the theater look like an especially

Fun note: in the 1948 Gene Kelly version, Vincent Price played Richelieu and the dapper Gig Young was miscast as the dull-witted but happy strongman Porthos.

I guess I'm too old for the Three Musketeers, as much as I loved it as a teenager. Yes, the story races along and the dialog is snappy, the characters vivid if somewhat one-dimensional. And the great set-piece, the long ride of the musketeers to save the Queen's honor. as they are picked off by the Cardinal's agents is as exciting as ever. Most of all, this celebration of male camaraderie and never-say-die courage is unmatched.

But the four heroes are, if you look at them objectively, a set of roistering louts. Contemptuous of –and ready to cozen – the middle classes, brutal to their servants, exploitative to women, blankly deferential to royalty, spendthrift, quarrelsome and generally thoughtless, and especially in the case of the "more mature" Athos, unpleasant drunks. In other words, they have all the charm of rowdy fraternity jocks or football hooligans trashing a bar.

Dumas's world is everything that Balzac;s is not. Both the Paris of Louis XIII and that of Louis=Philippe are full of dangers. treachery, and intrigues, but in the 19th century Paris, you can't get out of trouble with a rapier, a fast horse, and a loyal servant. In fact, in Balzac the characters most like the musketeers are exposed as the smooth louts and parasites that they are, from de Marsay and Du Tillet to Rastignac and de Rubempré.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Balzac, L’Interdiction (1836)

The mild eccentricity of the marquis d'Espard consists of living separately from his wife; raising his two sons to be honest, hard-working, and humane; repaying reparations to a family once defrauded by his father; and indulging modestly in scholarly pursuits. All of which makes him crazy by Parisian standards.

His wife, on the other hand, has squandered the considerable money he left her with; refused to be a mother for her two adolescent sons lest her true age be made obvious to society; and had a series of lovers now including Eugène Rastignac. Her aim is to have her husband declared incompetent through a legal "interdiction" and to have his remaining fortune managed in her favor.

This novella contains some of the typical elements of a Balzac novella, elements we have seen in, for example, Le Colonel Chabert. First and most typical is a scheming, social-climbing middle-aged noblewoman. Second is a relatively innocent if old-fashioned husband who is the victim of the wife. Third, there is a raisonneur figure – here two, a doctor (Bianchon) and a judge (Popinot). These two, as the professional mediators and the witnesses/arbitrators of the ugly, secret life of Paris, can see through the illusions of apparent wealth and beauty that dazzle others.

The two raisonneurs in some ways prefigure Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes in their ability to see beneath the surface. Bianchon quickly assesses both the real age of the marquise and her hidden finical desperation.

As Bianchon tells the (willfully) less observant Rastignac:
Crois-moi, les médecins sont habitués à juger les hommes et les choses ; les plus habiles d'entre nous confessent l'âme en confessant le corps. Malgré ce joli boudoir où nous avons passé la soirée, malgré le luxe de cet hôtel, il serait possible que madame la marquise fût endettée.

Believe me, doctors are accustomed to judging people and things; the cleverest of us confess the soul by confessing the body. Despite the pretty boudoir, where we spent the evening, despite the luxury of this house, it is possible that the Marchioness is in debt.
Popinot, despite his living in a stator of personal filth and disarray (a typical Balzac theme), is even more perspicacious. He briefly interviews the principals in the case, sees through the lies of the wife, and quickly ferrets out the honesty of the husband.

Add to this the fact that Bianchon and Popinot are among the few kind characters of La Comédie humaine. Rgey both spend much of their time helping the deserving poor, Bianchon with his medical skills and Popinot as a prototypical microlender.

But unlike the usual detective tale, the discovery of tehhidden reality comes to naught, The marquise and her allies, aware of the skepticism of the judge, pull levers to have him taken off the case and put into the hands of a sympathetic judge. Justice, as so often in Balzac, favors the well-connected. And the few honest countercurrents to the sewer of Parisian society are once again thwarted. This ain't Dickens.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Balzac Le Colonel Chabert (1844)

Many of Balzac's novellas deal with the Bourbon restoration (1814-1830) and the predicament of the heroes of the Grande Armée on their return to France or (if they do not return) on their families. In La Bourse (1832). for example, the widow of a Napoleonic naval officer and her beautiful daughter live in poverty, denied the father's pension. In La Vendetta (1830),the young hero (a captain from the disbanded army), dies from starvation, along with his wife and child, for lack of a pension and the difficulty of obtaining a position. Others such as the hero of the La Duchessse de Langeais (1834) manage to resuscitate a military career after the Bourbon's come onto power.

In Le Colonel Chabert, the hero goes even further – he is a ghost come from the grave. After leading the charge that won the battle of Eylau (1807), Chabert is buried alive on the battlefield and counted among the dead heroes. After emerging and being nursed by German peasants, he combines years of illness and amnesia. By the time he walks back to France, Napoleon has been exiled, and his young, beautiful, and now rich widow has married into the newly emergent Bourbon aristocracy.

His wife, one of a battalion of ultra-wily social-climbing seductresses in Balzac , does not want this haggard specter to ruin her life. By dint of charm and wiles, she almost gets Chabert to sign away his rights, until he overhears her treachery. His reaction, instead of making trouble, id to renounce her and run off. He ends up in a home for indigent old soldiers, while his wife continues her social career.


1. This story is a kind of Martin Guerre-like narrative, with the reservation that Chabert, whatever the initial impression, is no impostor, Curiously, the French film Le Colonel Chabert (1994) stars the inevitable Gérard Depardieu, who also played Martin Guerre in a movie. I haven't seen the movie, but plan to.

2. Derville is Balzac's honest lawyer of the Comédie humaine (he has a major role in Gobseck (1830) and witnesses the treatment of Goriot). He is the stand-in for the novelist, the raisonneur, as he observes the ugly realities of family life in Paris.

The Comédie humane is summed up – that annals of unpunished domestic crimes – in what Derville says to a young colleague, before retiring permanently from Paris:
Combien de choses n’ai-je pas apprises en exerçant ma charge ! J’ai vu mourir un père dans un grenier, sans sou ni maille, abandonné par deux filles auxquelles il avait donné quarante mille livres de rente ! J’ai vu brûler des testaments ; j’ai vu des mères dépouillant leurs enfants, des maris volant leurs femmes, des femmes tuant leurs maris en se servant de l’amour qu’elles leur inspiraient pour les rendre fous ou imbéciles, afin de vivre en paix avec un amant. J’ai vu des femmes donnant à l’enfant d’un premier lit des goûts qui devaient amener sa mort, afin d’enrichir l’enfant de l’amour. Je ne puis vous dire tout ce que j’ai vu, car j’ai vu des crimes contre lesquels la justice est impuissante. Enfin, toutes les horreurs que les romanciers croient inventer sont toujours au-dessous de la vérité.

How many things have I learned while carrying out my trade! I've seen a father die in an attic, without a penny, abandoned bytwo daughters that he had given forty thousand livres of revenue to! I've seen wills burned; I've seen mothers stripping bare their children, husbands stealing firm their wives, women killing their husbands, using the love that they inspired to make them fools or imbeciles, in order to live undisturbed with their lovers. I've seem women giving their eldest child tastes that would lead to his death, in order to enrich their love child. I can't tell you all that I have seen, for I've seen crimes against which justice is powerless. In summary, all the horrors that the novelists believe they are making up fall short of the reality.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Hugo, Les Orientales (1829)

This collection of 41 short poems is the great orientalist work of French Romanticism. While the Near East was in the air in the early 19th century, the chief influence on these poems is clearly Byron’s incredibly popular oriental poems, including The Giaour (1813), The Bride of Abydos (1813), Don Juan (1819-26)), and Mazeppa (1819_, the later of which inspired Hugo’s own poem with the same title and subject.

The first few poems celebrate the Greek war of liberation from the Ottoman empire, including the battle of Navarino at which the French fleet along with England and Russia crushed the Ottoman navy. The connection with Byron is also strong, as Byron died in Greece supporting the revolution, helping inspire European intervention.

A few early poems are on Biblical themes. Most of the other poems are daydreams of the otherness of the East, with images of sand and palm trees, scimitars and djinns, elephants and crocodiles, pashas and sultans, from Grenada to Constantinople.

But the poetry soon turns to the deep subject of much of orientalist art – sexual daydreams of the harem. The fantasy of sexually available beauties unable to say no recurs constantly. Add to that the spice of women of different races waiting to comfort the tired warrior.

The Eastern despot’s ability to demand submission from his women stands in stark contrast to the frustrations of the nineteenth-century Parisian, of which Balzac gives us example after example. While French women are sexually available, they also maddeningly slippery and fickle. In works like Ferragus, La Duchess de Langeais, La Femme de trente ans, for example, the unsubmissiveness of women is a torment to men. In La Fille aux yeux d’or, assort of harem is created in Paris, with a bitter twist. The desire for exclusivity and control in a culture of adultery is something unobtainable in the West, thus the temptation of the harem.

The last poem of Les Orientales entitled “Novembre”, is set in the fogs and cold of a Paris late autumn. The poet confesses the fantasy as an escape from the gray Paris sky. He dreams of the “soleil d'orient”, “la beau rêve d'Asie”, “danses des bayadère”. “éléphants blancs chargés de femmes brunes”, not to mention a few tigers and camels thrown in for effect.

The Napoleonic adventure in Egypt, and the French participation of Greek revolution, along with the North African adventurism of the Second Empire show that these are not just idle fantasies with no real-world implications. But in another sense, it’s overkill to accuse these voluptuous fantasies on a chilly day of being the main motivators of a thirst for colonialism that extended far beyond the Muslim world. The mediaeval fantasies that dominate the literature of the time time, after all, did not bring back feudalism.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Verne, Cinq Semaines en ballon (1862)

I'd always thought Verne’s books were published later in the century. But he was a contemporary of Zola and Flaubert. And while an age of engineering, world conquest, and scientific breakthrough is just barely visible in Zola, in Verne it becomes the whole point in Verne.

Cinq Semaines en ballon, published in 1862, recounts a pioneering (fictional) balloon trip across Africa, from Zanzibar to Senegal. At this time, while the coasts of the Africa were being taken over by the French and English, the interior was still beyond their reach. While explorers like Livingstone, Burton, Speke, and others had managed to explore some of the interior, many other explorers died from malaria, sleeping sicknesses and other diseases or at the hands of hostile tribes. The source of the Nile was in question until confirmed by Stanley in the 1870’s. Among the other discoveries by the balloon riders in the novel is the (fictional) confirmation of Speke’s theory that Lake Victoria was the true source.


1. This is a typical romance, a string of adventurous episodes, including breathtaking prospects, curious adventures, and near escapes from hostile man and beast. As with most romances, the incidents could be expanded or contracted or rearranged by the author, with the (somewhat blank) interior map of Africa as the only constraint, as we are pulled from jungle to grassland to desert and back again.

2. At the same time, it is full of anatomical factuality, about the specifics of ballooning (along with some innovations by our hero), about African geography and the history of its exploration. For example, a lot of prose is dedicated to the exact contents of the airship, including the precise amount of weight each person and item provide, along with the necessary ballast required.

3. What suffers is the characters – all rather one-dimensional. The trinity of balloonists is broadly drawn. There is the faithful, humorous, and agile British servant; the obtuse but trustworthy Scottish hunter/man of action; and the brilliant British leader of the expedition, whose knowledge of aeronautics, physics, geography, and ethnography gets them out of many a scrape.

4. The various natives of Africa as mostly viewed from a safe distance; they are portrayed as vicious, bloodthirsty, and/or credulous and simple. There is no real interaction with them, and a typical ugly racism of the time is rife. The sooner teh Europeans suppress these primitive natives, the book strongly implies, the better.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Zola, La Conquëte de Plasaans (1874)

After two Rougon-Macquart novels set in Paris, Zola returns us to his native Provence in La Conquëte de Plasaans, the fourth in the series। Unlike in Paris, the revolution of the modern, in industry, finance, morality, and daily life, has hardly reached Plassans (the fictionalized Aix-en-Provence).

And the clergy, which is definitely out of favor in Paris, has real political power in Provence. In La Fortune des Rougon, the Church kept a low profile, preferring to operate through proxies, at one remove. But fully pragmatic, it makes it peace with the new Bonapartist order and tries to re-establish its influence.

But in parallel with the politics is the destruction of two members of the Rougon-Macquart clan – François Mouret, a semi-retired businessman and Marthe, his cousin and wife (She’s the daughter of Pierre and Felicité Rougon, the protagonists of the first book in the series.) We see them as a relatively happy if eccentric household, along with their three children. Then they lease a few rooms to the down-at-the-heels Abbé Faujas and his mother. We see the Abbé worming his way into the comforts of the house until he becomes the master. At the same time, he rises in clerical hierarchy, supported by outside political powers, until he becomes the de facto leader of the local church.

In the meanwhile, Marthe becomes a religious fanatic, mutilating herself, neglecting her children, giving away much of the family property to the church. She dies eventually. Mouret goes gradually insane, is carted off to an asylum, and returns at night to, in a totally unexpected stroke of energy, burns down this own house with the abbé and his loathsome family.


1. As with most Zola novels, the women hold the real power. It is the women, starting with Marthe, that the Abbé brings over to his side.
Si l’abbé avait conquis les femmes et les enfants, il restait sur un pied de simple politesse avec les pères et les maris. Les personnages graves continuaient à se méfier de lui, en le voyant rester à l’écart de tout groupe politique.

If the abbé had conquered the women and children, he remained on terms of mere politeness with the fathers and husbands. The serious characters continued to mistrust him, seeing him keeping a distance from any political group.
In the end, a Greek chorus-like group of wives of the important men in the town of all parties (Republican, Orleanist, Bonapartist, Bourbonist) overcome the reluctance of their husbands to support the abbé. The husbands, though full of self-importance are easily led by their wives.

2. Abbé Faujas is an interesting villain. His own obvious vices are pretty minor: gluttony and pride. His holiness seems pretty hollow, and he is quite unable to rein in the real, crazed piety that he sets in motion in Marthe. His unwillingness to intervene as she destroys herself and her family is one example of his deep indifference to others, his own solipsism, all cloaked under pretend meekness. He also is virtually indifferent to the depredations of his parasitic sister and brother-in-laws, who rob the Mouret household, slowly take it over, and hold wild parties. The brother-in-law is set up, due to the Abbé’s influence, at a sinecure where he has opportunity to seduce unprotected girls, and the scandal is hushed up, thanks the power of the Abbé.

3. In the end Marthe’s attraction to religion is tied in with an absolute passion for the Abbé, for whom she declared her love, he wish to be his servant. She turns against her husband and neglects her children, and bankrupts her household.
je vous aime, et vous le savez, n’est-ce pas ? …. je sentais bien que vous deviniez mon cœur. J’étais satisfaite, j’espérais que nous pourrions être heureux un jour, dans une union toute divine

I love you, and you know it, don’t you? .... I felt that you guessed my heart. I was satisfied, I was hoping we could be happy one day, in a union totally divine.
When the Abbé, disgusted and होर्रिफ़िएद, hears her avowal, he rejects her cruelly. She takes to her bed and gets progressively sicker and soon dies.

4. When Fréjus arrives in Plassans, he is poorly groomed, wearing threadbare clothes, unwashed – for all of which he is mocked in the town. As he gains power, he dresses himself in rich new clothes, takes some care of his person. Then, when he ascends to power, he lets himself go again.
Plassans, en effet, dut le prendre mal peigné. ,,,La ville fut positivement terrifiée, en voyant le maître qu’elle s’était donné grandir ainsi démesurément, avec la défroque immonde, l’odeur forte, le poil roussi d’un diable. La peur sourde des femmes affermit encore son pouvoir.

Plassans, indeed, had to take him unkempt. , The city was positively terrified when they saw that the master they had given themselves had grow so out of proportion, with his foul ragged clothes, strong smell, the reddish hair of a devil. The secret fear of women maintained his power.

I find this reversal and the contempt it expresses a surprising yet believable result of power, an indication of Zola’s mastery – of observation, of narration, and originality –that makes even this lesser work so rich.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Stendhal, Le Rouge et Le Noir (1830)

I’ve read the Red and the Black several times before, in English. What I had never realized is that it was published before any of Balzac’s great novels, which by my reckoning begin with La Peau de Chagrin (1831). The novel has a Byronic hero, yet is a satire, in the manner of Byron's own Don Juan (1824). It is also based d on a true-life scandal, set in nearby Dauphiné.

Some notes:

1. Julien, a prodigy of memorization and an autodidact, really only knows and loves three books, “son Coran” – Rousseau’s Confessions, the Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, and the collection of Bulletins from Napoleon’s army. Like him, Rousseau and Napoleon are men of obscure birth, far from Paris, who become dominant figures. By contrast, the Bible, which he has memorized in what is a type of parlor trick, means nothing to him.

2. At a later point, Julien reads La Nouvelle Héloïse, the novel that Stendhal parallels and satirizes through the first half of the book Like Saint-Preux, the hero of La Nouvelle Heloïse, Julien is a tutor for a wealthy family who falls in love with a woman above his station. Like Saint-Preux, Julien flees the mountains (jura/Alps) to Paris. But it is the tone of the book that is so different. The sentimentality, the tears, that made the Rouseeau novel a best –seller in its time and is replace by a very objective, keen psychological analysis and no little humor in the Stendhal book – not a best-seller.

3. Julien imagines himself to be the hero of a work of fiction, one in which it will be discovered that, in the end, he is the bastard son of his noble patron. Or some other nobleman. No such luck.

4. Like so many striving figures of the period (most notably Rastignac), we has a vision of his conquest as he stands on the heights. Here on a mountain, as he warches a sparrow hawk circling above him.

L’œil de Julien suivait machinalement l’oiseau de proie. Ses mouvements tranquilles et puissants le frappaient, il enviait cette force, il enviait cet isolement.
C’était la destinée de Napoléon, serait-ce un jour la sienne ?

Julien's eye mechanically followed the bird of prey. Its quiet and powerful movements struck him, he envied this power, he envied this isolation. This was the fate of Napoleon, would that one day his own?
5. The second book of the novel sets a pattern for all the 19th century realistic novels about the provincial coming to conquer Paris with his charm and wit. He comes to the capital like an actor rehearsing a starring role/
Il allait enfin paraître sur le théâtre des grandes choses.
Finally he was going to appear on the great stage.
As with so many of his fellow heroes of realistic novels, early and dazzling success is followed by disaster.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Dumas, La Dame de Monsoreau (1846(

Dumas wrote La Dame de Monsoreau as a quick sequel to the very popular La Reine Margot, continuing on with the story of the last of the Valois kings and the Wars of Religion. Dumas was setting up his novel “factory” at this point, with collaborators doing some of the heavy lifting, but what is clear is a master hand at the helm, particularly in terms of structure (plotting). While the style and some of characterization flags on occasion, the power of the narrative and the suspense about what will happen next, along with the juggling of plots, are always expertly done.

The book follows the story of a score of major characters and intersects with the number of historical events (including the concluding and bloody duel of the mignons of the court and the ambush death of the valiant Bussy d’Amboise). And every step seems logical, parallelisms abound, and no string in the tangle gets lost.

Structural mastery is much-ignored virtue on writers, but it is not that common in writers of sprawling books, especially in historical romances. The temptation is to have an episodic structure, with events crammed in with litany of “and this happens and this and this.” There’s lots going on, with four separate major plot threads, but they intersect constantly and the developments in one line forward on the events in the next.

One key ambiguity is the relation of the effeminate and weak-willed Henri III and his favorites, idle and vain young minor aristocrats. In real life, Henri was designated by his enemies as either homosexual or at least bisexual (though those are modern terms – the accusations were as hermaphrodites.) In the novel, Dumas skirts the issue, though in fact in the very first chapter Henri abducts one of his favorites form his wedding night and imprisons him in the Louvre to keep him company through the lonely night. Henri is shown disdaining his beautiful wife (he will die childless) while craving the constant company of the other mignons. The implication is clear, but never explicit.