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.