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.