Monday, January 9, 2012

Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris (1843)

I’ve long wanted to read this long serialized novel of the Paris underworld, but somehow never got around to it. It’s both a wonderful and an awful work. At times, the turns of the plot, the illusion of gritty reality, and the delicious viciousness of the villains are delightful. At other times, it feels like Sue is on autopilot, shoveling descriptions and ill-conceived digressions at us at some much per word.

Les Mystères de Paris was one of the most popular books published in France in the nineteenth century, much to Balzac’s chagrin. A melodrama in novel form, true, but when it is at its best (especially in the first few books), the writing is far more vivid than any stage melodrama of the period. The characters are simplistic, yes, but some betray flashes of real individuality, the evil ones, like the one-eyed Chouette and the hypocritical notary Jacques Ferrand, and (most surprisingly) the good ones, like the cheerful and assertive seamstress Rigolette and the maladaptive Le Chouineur, a killing machine converted to the good side, but so deeply scarred that he is incapable of living in god society.

Most complex drawn of all is the hero, Rodolphe, who is the rich and gracious grand duke of a German principality, but who travels through Paris in disguise, a master of both Parisian low-life argot and of self-defense, foiling evildoers and comforting the oppressed. With a mixture of humor, cleverness, pity, anger, and melancholy, he is a far deeper character than I might have expected.

While the scenes among the proletarians, both virtuous and evil, give us a sharp taste of the language and milieu of the lower classes, when the action turns to high society – as it does all too often – the scenes seem contrived and inauthentic, a weak imitation of other bad “society” novels. The intrigues among the well born are rather dull.

Curiously. In this novel there are few representatives of the middle classes, with the glaring exception of the evil notary and his evil accomplice, a physician. Almost everyone else is either a nobleman or part of a nobleman’s suite or a proletarian. And in the era of the dominant Parisian middle class led by a king raised by a middle-class resolution, the gap is a little puzzling. The real mystery of this Paris is the absence of the most Parisian of classes.

Marx and Engels, in their book; The Holy Family and elsewhere, were very interested and very critical of this book, seeing it as an example of a sentimental bourgeois approach to the ills of society. When Sue steps back from the complex intrigue of his many characters, he is eager to preach reform – of the prisons, the hospitals, of money-lending, of charity, of the imprisonment of debtors, of orphanages, of divorce, of old age care. Curiously, all of these same liberal reforms, passed gradually over the next century a half served to undercut proletarian revolution and have, by and large, eliminated the worst depths of misery for the working classes depicted in the novel.

On the other hand, it is not very hard to see the fairy tale structure mixed in with the gritty realism. Rodolphe, like a Parisian Haroun-al-Rashid, wanders in working-class disguise among the poor righting wrongs, handing out money and furniture to the deserving poor, foiling those who would exploit the weak, and, in the end, saving all who can be saved. This is somewhat tolerable in that the prince himself is less than 100% competent, and has a bit of silliness and irony at times. But the implication is that the problems of the poor might somehow be magically resolved by the benevolence of the rich, the very rich whose fortunes are based not on some magic treasure cave but on, as Marx and Engels would note, the exploitation of the same labor pool that toils for mere sous in the garrets of Paris.

At one point in the novel, as Marx and Engels point out, an impoverished, overworked gem cutter at the end of his rope exclaims that if only the rich knew what he and his family had to suffer in their unheated attic, they would be moved to reform the system. My first reaction is a cynical snort. And yet, the consciousness of the sufferings of the invisible poor, so dramatically presented to so many avid middle-class readers by Sue, Dickens, and others, eventually does contribute to the eventual adoption of real reforms in western society.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Balzac, Le Cabinet des Antiques (1839)

This novella exemplifies a variety of typical Balzac tropes. Namely;

1.  The decline of the old nobility

The cabinet of antiques of the title, in fact, denotes the royalist salon of a French provincial town, a gathering of generally aged and mildly impoverished nobility and gentry. (A situation very similar to that in La Vielle Fille, written in1836.

Hosting the salon is the d’Esgrignon family, which survived the Revolution in slightly better shape than most emigrés, thanks to the efforts of a loyal and skillful notary, Chesnel. The old marquis and his still-attractive spinster sister hesd that faction, that is careful to exclude any recently-titled parvenus..

2.   The rise of the bourgeoisie

On the other side is a salon of the bourgeoisie and the new nobility, the people with real money and power in the department. The head of that party, Du Croisier , who made his money as a war profiteer during the Napoleonic era, once tried to arrange a marriage with the marquis’s sister. He was refused in a humiliating manner. Since then, he has looked to get his revenge.

3.  A young aristocrat from the provinces comes to make it in Paris,

The old count and his maiden sister have raised and spoiled a handsome young viscount, the product of a late marriage by the Marquis, Idle and mendacious, he gets into trouble in the small town, trouble that needs to be hushed up by Chesnel the notary at considerable expense to the family.  The viscount is sent to Paris, in the naïve hope that the restored Bourbon king will award a young aristocrat for his family’s loyalty during the exile. In fact, the court has other priorities, there are too many young noblemen in the same fix, and without a patron or money, the viscount doesn’t have a chance.

What he does have is stunning good looks and manners, and he is immediately taken up by the usually set of Balzac dandies – Rastignac, de Marsay. Blondet and the rest. He becomes the lover of a beautiful and fashionable older woman, the duchess of Maufrigneuse.  And like so many Balzac juveniles, he runs through the little money his family can spare (lavishing it on clothes, carriage, gifts, and gambling), and ends up in debt to Gobseck and other moneylenders, eventually forging letters of credit.

4. The battle for the documents

Chesnel has to go war against Du Crosier, who has kept close track of the viscount’s excesses, and sees a chance not only to ruin the d’Esgrignon family financially, his original aim, bit also to have the visocunt thrown in jail for forgery. Through a complex series of financial and maneuvers (something Balzac was quite expert in through personal experience), the notary saves the day. The viscount has to abandon his ambitions and is reckoned yet another failed comet of  Parisian  society.

In fact, after the unbending marquis finally dies, the viscount ends up marrying the wealthy niece of du Crosier, It's indicated that he returns to Paris and proceeds to waste his wife’s fortune.


Debt, forgery, bankers, usurers, and notaries, an older mistress, claims of nobility, warring salons, defy machinations  _ this novella is another retelling of the Balzac mythos of ambition and class insecurity.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Balzac’s “Un Drame au bord de la mer” (1834)

Set on the wild Breton coast, this short story is a precursor of later stories by other authors. More immediately, it had to be influenced by Prosper Mérimée’s gripping 1829 story, "Mateo Falcone'.

 Like that story, “Un Drame au bord de la mer” is about a father’s deliberate murder of his son. It too is set in a part of France (Corsica, Brittany) still outside the mainstream of French civilization, a place where the father feels entitled and obliged to serve as judge and executioner of an only child.

In the Balzac story, the narrator is the man from a pair of (unmarried, Parisian?) beachgoers, in a time and a remote (pre-railroad) place, where the outside world has barely touched. On the beach, they encounter an impoverished fisherman/beachcomber. Too poor to afford a boat, he makes a meager living harvesting the occasional lobster, crab, or fish that pass within reach. The narrator and his mistress are appalled to hear how little the Breton and his blind father live on (eating barnacles and buckwheat cakes, drinking wine only a few times each year), and pay him generously for his catch.

The story illustrates the contrast between the Romantic holiday view of the beach landscape (sea, sun, and sand) and the point of view of the locals, where the barrenness of the landscape means no firewood (the locals gather cow patties for fuel), and the narrowed choice between fishing (dangerous) and salt-harvesting (back-breaking).

The tourists engage the fisherman to guide them to an old stone lighthouse further along the beach. They pass on the way a strange hermit who sits impassively on rocks by the shore, staring out to sea/ “son immobilité stoïque ne pouvait se comparer qu'à l'inaltérable attitude des piles granitiques qui l'environnaient.” (his stoic immobility could only be compared to the unchanging attitude of the granite piles that surrounded him.) Forbidding, he has merged with the forbidding landscape.

We then learn the back-story, from the mouth of the guide/beachcomber, in a narrative-within-the –narrative that reminds me of Maupassant or Chekhov. It’s a tale of rough justice. The spoiled only son of a fisherman is indulged by his father and mother in spite of early misbehavior. He grows to be become a reveler, am idler, and a thief, driving his parents into poverty. The long-denying father finally gets plain evidence of the thefts, and determines to execute the out-of-control youth. He throws the tied-up boy, weighted down, off his boat into the sea. Soon after, the mother dies from grief. The father punished himself by taking up his vigil on the shore not far from where the execution took place.

This powerful raw story is a major departure for Balzac in many ways. It's narratively concise, almost laconic, and mostly outside the social sphere that is Balzac’s obsession.