Tag Archives: French literature

Thérèse Desqueroux by François Mauriac

Théresè Desqueroux by François Mauriac is one of two picks made by Emma for the virtual gift exchange. The book had been a topic of conversation before the exchange as there’s a new film version with Audrey Tatou in the role. I’m not sure if I’ll see it as I don’t think anything can be better than the 1962 version. But back to the book….

ThereseThérèse Desqueroux begins with the dismissal of a court case against a young married woman, and on the first page she exits the court house. A chilling reception awaits from Thérèse’s father, and a discussion between Monsieur Larroque and the barrister Duros reveal snippets of an extraordinary conversation; it becomes evident that a local doctor charged Thérèse with attempting to poison her husband, Bernard. Since this is a serious accusation, you might expect a celebratory period following the dismissal, but instead Duros and Larroque discuss the best line of attack; Duros favours aggressive newspaper coverage denying “A Scandalous Rumour,” while Larroque explains that “for the family’s sake we’ve got to hush the whole business up.”  And what of the young woman who’s the object of this horrible accusation? Her emotions don’t fit the moment; she’s cool and detached, and yet here in a conversation between Thérèse’s father and barrister, she reveals an underlying aggression:

“After my son-in-law’s evidence it was a foregone conclusion.”

“Hardly that-one can never be quite certain.”

“Once they’d got him to admit that he never counted his drops….

But in cases of this kind, you know, Larroque, the evidence of the victim…”

Thérèse spoke in a loud voice:

“There was no victim.”

End of conversation.

There’s a little bit of a squabble about what will happen next. Thérèse says she will spend a short time with her husband before returning to her father, but he’ll have none of that and tells her that she’s with her husband “till death do you part.” A grim statement in light of the recently dismissed court case.

On the journey back to Bernard’s and their home in Argelouse, Thérèse goes back into her past–through her childhood, adolescence and her marriage to Bernard, the brother of her best friend, Anne. The marriage is viewed as a “foregone conclusion” and yet Bernard’s mother, remarried and now called Madame Victor de la Trave isn’t 100% sold on the match. Thérèse is rich and attractive, but there’s a scandal involving her grandmother that’s been successfully swept under the rug, and Bernard’s mother is concerned that Thérèse might inherit her grandmother’s genes.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the honeymoon is an unmitigated disaster–undeniably so because Bernard is oblivious to his wife’s distress:

He remained imprisoned in his own pleasure like one of those charming little pigs whom it is so amusing to watch through the railings rooting around delightedly in their stye. (“And I was the stye,” thought Thérèse.) He always looked so much in a hurry, so busy, so serious. He was a man of method. “Do you think it’s altogether wise?”  Thérèse would sometimes ask, appalled by the extent of his virility. Laughingly he reassured her. Where had he learned to draw such fine shades of discrimination in all matters pertaining to the flesh, to distinguish between what a decent man may or may not permit himself in the matter of sadistic self-indulgence? He was never for a moment in doubt. Once, when they stopped for a night in Paris on their way back, he pointedly left a music-hall where the performance had shocked him. ‘To think the foreigners should see that! It’s a disgrace. that’s the sort of thing they judge us by!…” It amazed Thérèse to think that this Puritan should be one and the same as the man whose sensual ingenuities would be forced upon her in less than an hour.

Thérèse’s memories bring images of her unhappy marriage and the endless days which are coated with a suffocating boredom. Naturally the status quo cannot remain forever, and rather strangely Thérèse discovers the inkling of mental liberation through a platonic relationship with a young man who returns to the neighbourhood.

I saw undertones of lesbianism in the 1962 film version, but I didn’t pick that up in the book. I had a great deal more sympathy for Thérèse as depicted on the big screen, but there’s something repellent about the book’s Thérèse. I think I’m supposed to have sympathy for the fictional Thérèse’s dilemma–marrying a bombastic country bore before she really understands what she wants out of life. And, yes, while I do have sympathy, there are limits. There’s something rather cold and unpleasant about Thérèse. Here she is on the receiving end of one of Bernard’s lectures:

Thérèse was no longer frightened: she wanted to laugh. He was just comic– a figure of fun. It did not matter what he said in that awful accent of his which everywhere but in Saint-Claire made him a laughing stock–she was going away. Why all this fuss? It would not have made the slightest difference to anyone if this fool had disappeared from the face of the earth! The paper trembled in his hand, and she noticed his badly-kept finger-nails. He was wearing no cuffs. He was just a county oaf who looked merely comic anywhere but in his accustomed rut, the kind of man who, from any intellectual, or even personal, point of view, is completely null and void. Only habit makes us attach importance to the life of the individual. Robespierre had been right–and Napoleon and Lenin.

Don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to follow the examples of those three when considering the value of a human life.

Ultimately, are we supposed to have complete sympathy for Thérèse? Clearly her marriage to Bernard is a huge argument for ‘no-fault’ divorce, and while I have sympathy for anyone who married boring old Bernard, he never changed. He was totally himself, a creature of predictable, yawn-inducing habits from the start. Even though the marriage just fell into place, Thérèse wasn’t forced to marry him. After all, she was a wealthy young woman. For this reader, Thérèse has a few vital components missing–not everything can be explained away by the tedium of her daily existence, the suffocation of life with a boring spouse.

Translated by Gerard Hopkins

Anyway, thanks Emma. This was a great pick for me.

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Climates by André Maurois

I’ve been picking away at a Balzac biography by André Maurois, so I curious to read the novel Climates (1928). Maurois, who “kept a secret cupboard filled with Balzac novels” was clearly a Balzac devotee and expert, and I decided that given the Balzac connection, his novel would be, at the very least, interesting. Climates, also known as The Climates of Love, is the story of a man,  Philippe Marcenat and his two marriages, and through the novel, we get a fascinating look at two very different, and yet with the slight shifting of roles, oddly similar relationships. The novel explores some of the unanswerable questions about love: why do we chose to love one person and not another? Why are some relationships satisfying while others are not? Do we tend to fall in love with the same sort of person? Are we more comfortable with some relationship roles than others?  What does the selection of who we love say about who we are and what we need? And perhaps the most intriguing question of all: why do we love people who aren’t good for us?

ClimatesRegular readers of this blog know that I am a film fan, and while I watch a great deal of foreign film, French film seems to excel at exploring the philosophical depths and treacherously difficult nuances of relationships. Certainly the same is also true of French fiction, and after reading Climates, I have to agree with a statement in the wonderful introduction by Sarah Bakewell that French writers are “more than usually observant and often merciless with themselves. They reveal every power game, every change of emotional weather. Every powerful and embarrassing moment is needled out for us on the page.” This is most definitely the case with Climates, a novel in which one man’s relationships are scrutinized and rather painfully analyzed, and we see that even though our protagonist, Philippe perfectly understands himself, his actions, his desires, and his choices, in this case, self-knowledge does not bring happiness or success in personal relationships.

 Philippe Marcenat comes from a rather staid, conventional and respectable background in the provinces. His father owns a paper mill, and when the novel begins, Philippe is a child set to run and inherit the paper mill in the distant future. The family is well off and live in a nineteenth century Château, the Château de Gandumas–an idyllic if provincial setting. You could say that his family is rather predictably boring, caring a great deal about appearances, but to say that doesn’t really do justice to the fact that Philippe’s family are very nice, decent people but somewhat repressive and eminently respectable. As a child, Philippe develops an image of the ‘ideal woman’ after reading a book called Little Russian Soldiers, and clearly his imagined role with this fantasy woman is to be a sort of devoted slave who aims to please and is rewarded with a smile. This seemingly small experience appears to set the tone for Philippe’s later adult relationships, for while he has numerous affairs, his first really serious relationship is with a young, beautiful, emotionally elusive girl called Odile he meets against the backdrop of a romantic Italian holiday.

Structurally, according to the author,  this is a very simple story: “Part 1 -I love and am not loved. Part 2-I am loved and do not love.” Part 1 which takes the form of a letter to his second wife is narrated by Philippe and is the story of his courtship of Odile and their subsequent marriage. After his first glance at Odile, he is completely entranced:

Why did I feel such a sense of perfection? Were the things Odile said remarkable? I think not, but she had what all the Marcenats lacked: a lust for life. We love people who secrete a mysterious essence, the one missing from our own formula to make us a stable chemical compound. I may not have known women more beautiful than Odile, but I knew plenty who were more brilliant, more perfectly intelligent, yet not one of them managed to bring the physical world within my grasp as she did. Having been distanced from it by too much reading, too much solitary meditation, I now discovered trees and flowers and the smell of the earth, all sorts of things picked by Odile every morning and laid in bunches at my feet.

While Odile Malet brings “the world of colors and sounds” to Philippe (and we can really feel how entranced he is with her fey qualities), he gives her the stability she lacks. Odile’s home life is less-than-respectable. Her father is a failed architect, and this is Odile’s mother’s third marriage. Odile is inadequately chaperoned, goes into society freely, and her mother takes lovers. Ultimately to Philippe’s mother, the Malets are “not people like us.” Since Philippe and Odile both bring to the marriage the elements the other person lacks, it’s entirely possible to imagine that this couple will enjoy a happy marriage. But almost from the moment this relationship gets off the ground, tiny fault lines form between them (her flirtatiousness, attraction to fake jewelry, “puerile” novels and the fact that Philippe isn’t “much fun,“) and these fault lines widen.

I do not regret those times, although they were fleeting. Their last chords still resonate within me, and if I listen carefully and silence the noise of the present, I can make our their pure but already doomed sound.

We are taken through every stage of this marriage including “the first knock to send a fine crack through the transparent crystal of my love. An insignificant episode but one that prefigured everything to come.” Our narrator, Philippe does not spare himself as he details the disintegration of the marriage, and this is somewhat unusual, as so often the narrator–especially in the matters of love–will tell a slightly slanted story. Not so here. Philippe admits that in the marriage he finds himself in an unusual position, and one that he does not care for. In the past, he’s the one who loved lightly and decided when his relationships with various mistresses were to end. Now the tables are turned, and Philippe acknowledges that Odile has the power in the relationship. Yes, he’s male and has the money, and in theory should be the one in power, but his adulation of Odile dictates his amount of tolerance which is accompanied by overwhelming jealously and a sense of powerlessness.  At the same time, he also admits that “as early as the second month of our married life I knew that the real Odile was not the one I had married.” Odile brings a lot of emotional baggage to the relationship, and while it’s emotional difficulty that Philippe craves, it also erodes the foundations of their marriage.

Part 2 is written by Philippe’s second wife in the form of a letter to her husband–along with quotes from his diaries. Here we see Philippe in his second marital relationship. This wife is all the things that Odile was not, and yet the opposite is also true. Philippe’s attraction is partially explained by the similarities he makes between the two women “rather like hanging a garment on a peg.” Outsiders might predict that Philippe’s second marriage would be far more successful than the first, yet is it? He has a wife who worships him and is content just to be in the same room together, but is this the sort of relationship Philippe wants?

In the novel, Maurois argues that each relationship creates a climate, an environment, physical, mental and emotional, and that these climates alter as we move from one relationship to another. One climate may not suit while another may be preferable, and one of the difficulties presented by marriage and examined in the book is the undeniable fact that  “one cannot just transfer one’s personality intact from one environment to the next” (Bakewell).  One of the first annoyances Philippe encounters after returning from his honeymoon with Odile is her choice of curtains, and it’s no coincidence that domestic details are given a fair amount of attention in the novel.

It’s impossible to read this novel without contemplating the power of memory. Philippe’s early memories shape his later life, and are his memories of Odile accurate or has she improved in the frequent replays of their life together?

Why do some images remain with as clear to us as when we first saw them, while others that might seem more important grow hazy and fade so quickly?

The introduction discusses some aspects of the author’s personal life and those autobiographical elements that entered the novel. The character of Odile, strangely sad at times in spite of her love for life, seems to be so alive in these pages–almost as if she could step, laughing, from the pages. I take that as a tribute to the author’s love for the woman who was the basis for the character. Authors often write in order to answer unresolved questions in their lives. How gratifying it would be, in theory at least, to be an author who had the talent to write and then solve some of the issues in life. In the case of Climates, this superb novel does not appear to bring any ease to Maurois or chase away the ghosts that haunted him. In fact, if anything, there’s a lingering discontent, an acknowledged hopeless regarding his shortcomings and a strong, overpowering sense of loss.

Review copy. Translated by Adriana Hunter.

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A Game of Love and Chance by Marivaux

“Have you ever seen counterfeit money? Do you know what a dud coin is? Well, I am rather like that.”

A Game of Love and Chance is the third book from Emma in our virtual gift exchange. I was surprised at the choice of a play, but also more than happy to read it. I was lucky enough to see a superb production of The Triumph of Love a few years ago, so reading another play by Marivaux brought back some good memories. I now have a collection of several Marivaux plays: The Double Inconstancy, The False Servant, The Game of Love and Chance, Careless Vows, The Feigned Inconstancy and five one-act pieces. My edition is from Methuen World Classics, and it has the peculiar feature of including the cast members, so for A Game of Love and Chance, my copy states that this translation, from John Walters was commissioned by the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton, and was first performed on Feb. 20, 1986. Then comes the cast list of actors for this particular production.

The plot of A Game of Love and Chance is as follows:

Monsier Orgon wants his daughter, Silvia to marry Dorante, the son of an acquaintance.This is, rather importantly, an arranged marriage–but an arranged marriage with conditions. Orgon wants Silvia to meet Dorante and see if he pleases her. Silvia, however, has recently had a rather unpleasant experience of seeing a wife in tears and she realises that a man can show one face to the world while his wife sees the ‘real’ side. She gives her servant, Lisette, an example:

And then there’s Leander. People are happy with him when they see him, are they not? Well, let me tell you, at home he is a man who says not a word, neither laughs nor scolds–a frozen, solitary, unapproachable soul. His wife does not know him, she has no dealings with his mind. She is married only to a shape who emerges from an inner room to come to table, and withers all around him with a chilling apathy and torpor. Now there’s an entertaining husband for you! 

So Sylvia devises a plan. She decides to pose as her servant Lisette as she wants to be able to gauge Dorante’s true character. Is there a better way to see the ‘real’ person than to pose as (or to really be) a perceived social inferior?  

There’s a catch. Dorante has decided to do the same thing, so he switches places with his valet Harlequin. Subsequently, Harlequin courts Lisette (thinking that she’s the wealthy Silvia), and Dorante falls in love with Silvia (thinking she’s the lowly maidservant). Of course this is all very clever as then we see that Dorante’s motivated not by venal concerns but by love–whereas Harlequin thinks he’s going to land a rich wife and change his fortunes. The best part has to be that the audience is on the joke–along with Sylvia’s father, Orgon.

The dialogue is fast-paced and very witty. Here’s Harlequin and Lisette:

Lisette: I find it hard to believe that it hurts you so much to wait, Monsieur. You are only pretending impatience out of gallantry. You have barely arrived here, your love cannot be very strong. At the most, it can only be in its infancy.

Harlequin: You are mistaken, oh wonder of our age! A love such as ours does not stay long in the cradle. My love was born at your first glance, your second gave him strength, and the third made him a big boy. Let us try to marry him off as soon as possible. Look after him, since you are his mother.

Lisette: Do you find him mistreated then? Is he so forsaken?

Harlequin: Until he is fixed up, just give him your lovely white hand to keep him amused.

Is it just my dirty mind, or is there a sexual connotation there?

I didn’t care for some of the updated language. Perhaps it worked better on the stage. Here’s the arrival of Harlequin posing as Dorante:

Harlequin: A servant out there told me to come in here. He said my pa-in-law and my missus would be informed.

Silvia: you mean Monsieur Orgon and his daughter, I suppose, Sir?

Harlequin: Well, yes, my pa-in-law and my missus, as good as. I’ve come to wed, and they’re waiting for me so they can get married. It’s all agreed. we’ve only to go through with the ceremony, and that’s a mere trifle.

In the French version, Harlequin uses the term beau père instead.

One of things that struck me as I read the play is how much it reminded me of Shakespeare for its idea of the mixed up couples, but the informative intro to my copy states that Marivaux plays  “have an average of six main roles, with a minimum of five and a maximum of ten.” Just guessing here, but the Shakepeare plays seem to have a higher average number of characters. Another thing that was apparent in the play is of course the innate snobbery that the upper class couple Dorante and Silvia are capable of a higher sort of love while Harlequin and Lisette’s relationship is much more earthy. The laughs seem to be generated by Harlequin and Lisette rather than their upper class counterparts, so is Marivaux also saying that the servants enjoy life more?

Thanks Emma. I enjoyed this and since I have a free French version on the kindle, I’ll try reading it in French–although I think the translation I have includes some creative liberties.

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A Second Home by Balzac

“The fatal blunder of mistaking the enchantment of desire for that of love.”

Balzac’s novella A Second Home (Une Double Famille) begins in 1815 with an impoverished mother and daughter slaving away as embroiderers and barely making ends meet. They live in the Rue du Tourniquet-Saint-Jean–a rather dingy place by the sounds of it, with the widest stretch of the street “less than six feet across.” This bit of description serves to explain just why Madame Crochard and her daughter Caroline, who rent two cellar rooms with windows “their sills about five feet above the ground” watch and are in turn watched by those who pass by. Caroline, the heroine of the tale, is of course, young, sweet, beautiful and modest, and the mother, Balzac tells us “almost seemed to be offering her daughter, her gossiping eyes so evidently tried to attract some magnetic sympathy by manoeuvres worthy of the stage.” If this is indeed the plan, it eventually works as Caroline’s beauty and plight touches the heart of a passerby–an intense and rather unhappy man of about 40 who bears the evidence of “long mental suffering.” He’s attracted to Caroline, and she to him, and over the course of many months, long looks through the windows lead to a relationship. Although initially Caroline and her mother nickname him “the Gentleman in Black,” he tells them his name is Monsieur Roger.

The story takes one glance backward but also three leaps ahead in time. The first leap ahead finds Caroline installed in a house in the Rue Taitbout. It’s 1816:

Hangings of gray stuff trimmed with green silk adorned the walls of her bedroom; the seats, covered with light-coloured woolen sateen, were of easy and comfortable shapes, and in the latest fashion; a chest of drawers of some simple wood, inlaid with lines of a darker hue, contained the treasures of the toilet; a writing table to match served for inditing love-letters on scented paper; the bed, with antique draperies, could not fail to suggest thoughts of love by its soft hangings of elegant muslin; the window-curtains, of drab silk with green fringe, were always half drawn to subdue the light; a bronze clock represented Love crowning Psyche; a carpet of gothic design on a red ground set off the other accessories of this delightful retreat.

Caroline is now Roger’s mistress–although the uglier side of things is not referred to, and Caroline must be innocent indeed as she simply doesn’t seem to ‘get it.’  She drops her name Crochard and calls herself Caroline de Bellefeuille. Roger doesn’t visit every day, and often gives work as an excuse, but of course, that’s not the only reason.

The second time leap takes us forward to 1822. Caroline is now the mother of two children, and Roger (Caroline still doesn’t know his last name) arrives and gives her a “deed of gift of securities” for 3,000 francs which will be their daughter Eugenie’s “marriage portion.” In contrast, their son, Charles gets 1500. It’s difficult to completely swallow the story that Caroline never questions Roger about his absences, his identity, or his life away from her, but Balzac argues

Finally, invincible curiosity led her to wonder for the thousandth time what events they could be that led so tender a heart as Roger’s to find his pleasure in clandestine and illicit happiness. She invented a thousand romances on purpose really to avoid recognising the true reason, which she had long suspected but tried not to believe in.

Of course Caroline’s world comes tumbling down, and eventually Roger’s secret is revealed, and the third leap in time takes us forward to 1833. It’s at this point that A Second Home takes a strange turn, and it’s almost as though Balzac does an-about face with the moral of the story. All the moral justification and explanations about Roger’s behaviour have led to disaster…

In the story, Balzac, ever the bon vivant displays his loathing of religious maniacs:

And besides, bigots constitute a sort of republic; they all know each other; the servants they recommend and hand on from one to another are a race apart, and preserved by them, as horse-breeders will admit no animal into their stables that has not a pedigree. The more the impious–as they are thought–come to understand a household of bigots, the more they perceive that everything is stamped with an indescribable squalor; they find there, at the same time, an appearance of avarice and mystery, as in a miser’s home, and the dank scent of cold incense which gives a chill to the stale atmosphere of a chapel. This methodical meanness, this narrowness of thought, which is visible in every detail, can only be expressed by one word–Bigotry.

One point Balzac makes is that there’s a danger in a religious wife who will listen to a priest over her husband. Ah, the pathology of authority….

In Prometheus, a biography of Balzac by André Maurois, there’s the following passage:

A bourgeois of the Marias, a lover of aristocratic women, he had no wish for violent change. He condemned the extremists on both sides. In the Scènes de la Vie Privée he deplores the follies of the counter-revolutionary and anti-Bonapartist purges. All forms of bigotry shocked him. In the Abbé Fontanon, the confessor of Angélique de Granville (Une Double Famille), he gives us a picture of an ambitious, hypocritical priest which might have been drawn by the anti-clerical Stendhal

What I liked most about A Second Home is that while the tale has a veneer of sentimentality, underneath the sugary sweetness is some rather nasty stuff, and Balzac, ever the expert on human nature, explores the power politics of marriage and how one man who breaks out from bigotry causes immeasurable damage to others. What would Roger (and his creator) have made of the Frank Sinatra song: The Tender Trap?

Some starry night, when her kisses make you tingle
She’ll hold you tight, and you’ll hate yourself for being single

And all at once it seems so nice

The folks are throwing shoes and rice
You hurry to a spot, that’s just a dot on the map

You’re hooked, you’re cooked, you’re caught in the tender trap

A Second Home is translated by Clara Bell and available FREE for the kindle.

The Tender Trap lyrics from Cahn/Van Heusen

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An Episode Under the Terror by Balzac

An Episode Under the Terror, according to my copy, was published in 1831. This  story takes place in January 1793 in Paris, and you don’t need to be a student of French history to know that this was a time of turmoil. France had become a Republic, and on January 21st, 1793, Louis XVI was executed by guillotine. The story An Episode Under the Terror begins the day after the execution of Louis as a fearful old lady walks through the streets of Paris at night:

It had snowed so heavily all day long that the lady’s footsteps were scarcely audible; the streets were deserted, and a feeling of dread, not unnatural amid the silence, was further increased by the whole extent of the Terror beneath which France was groaning in those days; what was more, the old lady so far had met no one by the way.

Hearing footsteps steadily behind her, the old lady imagines that she’s being followed by a spy. She is not, however, deterred from her mission, and she continues on her errand to a pastry-cook’s shop. The old woman is dressed plainly with no powder on her hair, but in spite of this, it’s very easy for the pastry-cook and his wife to spot their customer as a noble woman:

The manners and habits of people of condition were so different from those of other classes in former times that a noble was easily known, and the shopkeeper’s wife felt persuaded that her customer was a ci-devant, and that she had been about the court.

The old lady pays her last gold louis for the contents of a small pastry box and returns home to a cold garret she shares with two other people. She’s followed home by the same man who followed her to the shop. Is he a spy? Will he denounce the old woman and the two other residents who are hiding under the most miserable of circumstances?

Even though this is a very simple story, Balzac gives a sense of the uncertainty unleashed by Reign of Terror. The shopkeepers feel some pity for the old lady but they are “drawn two ways by pity and self-interest.” As usual there are some marvellous observations from Balzac on the subject of human behaviour and money–this is seen through the behaviour of the pastry cook who fleeces the old lady and feels a momentary prick of conscience for his thievery.

One of the issues Balzac brings up is that the priest, a Jansenist, in the story refused to take “the Oath.” Another issue that emerges in the story, and one of quite surprising prescient is the subject of individual responsibility. The priest discusses the current “wickedness” and the stranger asks if he will be punished for his “indirect participation.” 

“But do you think that an indirect participation will be punished?” The stranger asked with a bewildered look. “There is the private soldier commanded to fall into line–is he actually responsible?”

The priest hesitated. The stranger was glad; he had put the Royalist precisian in a dilemma, between the dogma of passive obedience on the one hand (for the upholders of the Monarchy maintained that obedience was the first principle of military law), and the equally important dogma which turns respect for the person of a king into a matter of religion. 

While I wasn’t that interested in the wrestling of religious dogma, the stranger’s question–just how responsible was he for ‘following orders’ resonates today. How can loyalty or obedience to a king, a president or a general trump individual conscience or morality?

Balzac was born in 1799, so he hadn’t been born when the events of the story take place. Balzac’s mother gave birth to a first son in 1798, nursed him herself, and he died a few weeks later. Honoré Balzac was sent off to a wet nurse, the wife of a gendarme at Saint-Cyr-sur-Loire. He was four years old when he returned home to his parents in Tours, and this separation from his mother set the tone for his relationship with her–and perhaps all women.

My copy came free on the kindle, but it’s also available on Project Gutenberg.

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A Slight Misunderstanding by Prosper Mérimée

I found Prosper Mérimée’s A Slight Misunderstanding thanks to Max at Pechorin’s Journal. This is a fairly simple story, deceptively so, of Julie de Chaverny, a beautiful, bored society woman who makes a fatal error. The title indicates that the error is ‘a slight misunderstanding’ and while it’s certainly true that the events which unfold occur due to a misunderstanding, this leads to a phenomenal error in judgment. This error mirrors the complications of love affairs in which those involved fail–deliberately or otherwise–to discuss their real intentions. Through this story, Mérimée shows just how exquisitely easy it is to misinterpret events and the actions of others.

Here’s society beauty, Julie de Chaverny married 6 years before:

Julie de Chaverny had now known for approximately the last five years and months that it was not only impossible to love her husband but difficult even to feel any respect for him. Not that her husband was offensive, nor was he either foolish or stupid. And yet perhaps he was something of all three. Looking back, she might have recalled having once liked him; now, he bored her. She found everything about him repellent: the way he ate, the way he drank his coffee, the way he spoke, set her nerves on edge. They hardly ever saw or spoke to each other except at the table; but as they dined together a number of times a week, this was quite enough to keep her aversion alive.

So much for married bliss. Mérimée’s insertion in the passage of the words “she might have recalled having once liked him” adds the element of the muddying of time and also a strong sense of ennui. There’s also the idea that Julie perhaps no longer wishes to remember the relationship for what it once seemed to be.  The craft of this 1833 novella shows strongly in its first paragraph. It’s easy to imagine Chaverny slurping his soup and being generally annoying at the dining table, and certainly his presence and possibly his manners serve to remind Julie of just how much she dislikes the man she married.

This state of affairs is buoyed by Chaverny’s constant love affairs with other women, and Julie…well Julie has her flirtations.

Young, beautiful and married to a man whom she disliked, one may imagine that she was bound to be surrounded by much admiration which was far from disinterested.

Julie’s flirtations are rather innocent. She enjoys admiration, but she has no intention of becoming any man’s mistress. That’s too bad for Major de Chateaufort, a handsome young officer who sniffs Julie’s marital distress and is determined to make her his mistress. Chateaufort hangs around Julie like a dog expecting his dinner, and just as he seems to be making progress in the affair, Darcy, a man from Julie’s pre-marriage days enters the picture….

There are a couple of scenes which capture the awkwardness of the De Chavernys’ relationship. In one scene, at the end of a long evening, Chaverny is caught unawares by the prospect of sharing the carriage home with his wife–no easy task apparently, as “the prospect of being alone with her for twenty minutes was alarming.” This really is a marvellous moment and Mérimée takes full advantage of it–including another significant carriage scene later. That same night, Chaverny even hints at sex, but Julie has a million ways of slipping out of his grasp and silencing any fleeting interest her husband may feel for her.

Mérimée shows how society plays a role is pushing Julie into Darcy’s path. This is an interesting contrast to Wharton’s Age of Innocence where we see society taking an active role in keeping Countess Olenska and Newland Archer apart. What happens to Julie and how she reacts to her old lover is the bulk of this story, and I was reminded of Louise de Vilmorin’s Madame de–another lost society woman who’s much more delicate and sensitive than she first appears.

A Slight Misunderstanding is a jewel of a story–no argument from this reader, but beyond the delight of reading it, I also considered the problem of intention and mis-communication. It’s bad enough these days, but love affairs must have been so much more complicated in the past–how could one discuss one’s intentions or interest if it was considered impolite?

Translated by Douglas Parmée

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Betrayal by the Marquis de Sade

“O sovereign Providence, why are men’s means so limited that the only way they can ever contrive to do good is by doing a little evil!”

I went through a Marquis de Sade period years ago, but when I came across Betrayal, a title I hadn’t read and published by Hesperus Press, I couldn’t resist. After all the Marquis is everyone’s favourite pervie, and Hesperus puts together some excellent little editions. Betrayal actually contains 2 stories: The Magistrate Mocked (which clocks in at 74 pages) and Emilie de Tourville or Brotherly Cruelty which is 27 pages long. Of the two I prefer the latter. If I wanted to be nasty, I’d say I prefer Emilie de Tourville because it’s shorter, but that wouldn’t be strictly true. The style is much better, but more of that later.

The Magistrate Mocked has some of the elements of a farce, except in typical de Sade fashion, the author doesn’t understand limits, mocking (as the title suggests) ad nauseum, one of his main characters. It’s true that we don’t have much sympathy for the elderly, repugnant M. de Fontanis, “the president of the Parlement of Aix,” but de Sade’s jokes at the expense of this character become old. When the story begins an elderly Baron arranges the marriage, against her will, of his youngest daughter to the repulsive, sepulchral Fontanis:

Not many people can imagine a president of the Parlement of Aix–it is a species of beast of which people have often spoken without knowing it well: strict and unbending by profession,  and pernickety, credulous, stubborn, vain, cowardly, garrulous and stupid by character; with a beaky little face, rolling his ‘r’s like a Punchinello, commonly as thin as a rake, lanky and skinny and stinking like a corpse…It seems that all the spleen and haughtiness of all the magistrates in the kingdom has taken refuge in this temple of the Themis of Provence, to gush out as and when needed, each time that a French court has remonstrances to bring or citizens to hang. But M. de Fontanis was even worse than this rapid sketch of his compatriots would suggest. Over the gaunt, and indeed somewhat bent figure that we have just depicted, M. de Fontanis displayed a narrow occiput, not very low and rising to a distinct eminence, adorned by a yellow forehead magisterially covered by a multi-layered wig, of a kind that had never been seen in Paris; two rather bandy legs supported, with some magnificence, this walking church-tower, from whose chest–not without some inconvenience for those nearby–there issued the exhalations of a yelping voice that poured forth, with a certain pomposity, long compliments, half-French and half-Provencal, at which he never failed to smile himself, his mouth gaping so wide that it was possible to see as far as the uvula that dangled over a blackish chasm, entirely toothless.

De Sade goes on to compare the mouth of de Fontanis to a toilet. A tasty prospect indeed for the Baron’s youngest daughter who happens to be in love with the young, handsome, Count d’Elbène, and to complicate matters, Mlle de Téroze has lost her virginity to the Count. For a moment, I expected Mlle de Téroze to flee with her lover, but de Sade has some torturous misadventures in mind for de Fontanis. 

De Fontanis marries his bride and they honeymoon at the home of the bride’s sister and brother-in-law, the Marquis and the Marquise d’Olincourt. It then becomes the goal of the bride, her sister and brother-in-law, and, naturally, the lover, to ensure that the consummation of the marriage does not take place. This involves a number of horrible things happening to de Fontanis and of course, there’s the  inevitable, classic de Sade scatology with an episode of uncontrollable diarrhoea along with another episode of de Fontanis falling into a cesspool.

The second story Emilie de Tourville or Brotherly Cruelty concerns a middle-aged Count who discovers a near-dead woman in the middle of the road. He takes her home and as she slowly recovers, she tells him her story of woe: seduction, betrayal & abandonment, debauchery, and imprisonment. It’s a tragic tale along the lines of a dummied-down Clarissa, but de Sade isn’t interested in developing character and he has to push the boundaries by dragging in coincidence. This story, however, is devoid of the occasional floweriness and annoying lofty nonsense that appears in The Magistrate Mocked.

Hesperus Press elevates these stories by combining them with a marvellous introduction by translator Andrew Brown, and that’s what makes this edition so worthwhile. This introduction places the stories within the context of de Sade’s life, and Brown points out that at one point, de Sade and his handy man-servant Latour were accused of trying to poison 4 prostitutes in Marseilles. The poison was in fact sweets laced with aphrodisiac, and 2 of the prostitutes accused de Sade of sodomy and attempted poisoning. The parlement of Aix-en-Provence passed sentence of death on both Latour and de Sade. They escaped, but effigies were symbolically ‘executed’ in their place. Andrew Brown notes that these charges were later dropped. The important element here, however, is that this explains de Sade’s spleen against the legal profession, and like many writers, he executes in fiction what he could not commit in life.

The Magistrate Mocked is also valuable for the way in which de Sade, after having fictionally tortured de Fontanis with humiliation after humiliation, lays out some of his philosophy of crime and punishment through the mouths of his characters. One of de Sade’s beefs, apparently, was that prostitutes could make accusations against an aristocrat, and what’s more they could even find a sympathetic ear.

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The Physiology of Marriage by Balzac

“A man ought not to marry without having studied anatomy, and dissected at least one woman.”

Although I’m a Balzac fan, I’m going to admit that I didn’t find The Physiology of Marriage an easy read, but that said, it’s an important and interesting book. It shows a young Balzac in embryo–still in the process of becoming the great writer who created Cousin Bette and The Black Sheep. The book also shows Balzac’s fascination with human behaviour–particularly the behaviour of women–even as he plays with and organises some of his major themes and ideas.

The Physiology of Marriage, published in 1829, is not a novel. Instead it’s a hodge podge of lectures, aphorisms, stories and observations on the institution and power dynamics of marriage. The basic theme is that marriage is not “an institution of Nature” but is an arrangement fraught with difficulties. There were times when Balzac seemed to lurch into Masters and Johnson territory–especially when he started working the numbers and calculating just how many French wives commit adultery. At the end of the book, a Duchess rather appropriately calls Balzac a “doctor of conjugal arts and sciences.” If he earns this title, it should certainly accompany the disclaimer that Balzac’s science is the science  of observation.

Balzac seems to explore every possible category under the heading of marriage. Here’s Balzac on women and headaches:

Now headache is an affection which affords infinite resources to a woman. This malady, which is the easiest of all to feign, for it is destitute of any apparent symptom, merely obliges her to say: “I have a headache.” A woman trifles with you and there is no one in the world who can contradict her skull, whose impenetrable bones defy touch or ocular test. Moreover, the headache is, in our opinion, the queen of maladies, the pleasantest and the most terrible weapon employed by wives against husbands. There are some coarse and violent men who have been taught the tricks of women by their mistresses, in the happy hours of their celibacy, and so flatter themselves that they are never to be caught by this vulgar trap. But all their efforts, all their arguments end by being vanquished before the magic of these words: “I have a headache.” If a husband complains , or ventures on a reproach, if he tries to resist the power of this Il buondo cani of marriage, he is lost.

And there’s more. Balzac paints a scenario of a young  woman “lying voluptuously on a divan” while her husband paces around the room. Although the word ‘sex’ does not appear, Balzac’s inclusion of the word “voluptuously” sneaks in the idea that sex (a lack thereof and the subsequent frustrations felt by the husband) is at the root of the headache problem. What’s more, Balzac accuses the medical profession of being in cahoots with the headache sufferers. Freud would call this hysterical illness no doubt. The passages on the problems of headaches within marriage reminded me of a professor who peppered his lectures on Victorian literature with salacious slices of information about his married life. He too held forth on the subject of headaches. The professor advised all men to keep a bottle of aspirin on hand, and then, when a wife complained of a headache at bedtime, the husband could toss her the bottle and tell her to swallow a couple before proceeding on with the business at hand.

Ah, the delicacy of marital politics….

Balzac arrives at the somewhat obvious conclusion (obvious these days, that is) that most marriages are unhappy, and that adultery is the natural result. Here he is discussing what percentage of the married female population commit adultery:

Adultery does not establish itself in the heart of a married woman with the promptness of a pistol-shot. Even when sympathy with another rouses feelings on first sight, a struggle always takes place, whose duration discounts the total sum of conjugal infidelities. It would be an insult to French modesty not to admit the duration of this struggle in a country so naturally combative, without referring to at least a twentieth in the total of married women: but then we will suppose that there are certain sickly women who preserve their lovers while they are using soothing draughts, and that there are certain wives whose confinement makes sarcastic celibates smile. In this way we shall vindicate the modesty of those who enter upon the struggle from motives of virtue. For the same reason we should not venture to believe that a woman forsaken by her lover will find a new one on the spot; but this discount being much more uncertain than the preceding one, we will estimate it at one-fortieth.

Balzac is saying that women don’t intend to commit adultery, but that it happens after a period of inner struggle and with cause (spousal mistreatment which is also discussed). After crunching the numbers, he lands on the figure that approx. 800,000 French women commit adultery. Dostoevsky would not agree with Balzac’s idea that women don’t have serial lovers. In The Eternal Husband, Natalya Vasilyevna cuckolds both a husband and a lover when a new man arrives on the scene. Natalya has to get rid of her old, boring lover, Velchaninov, in order to conduct an affair with a newcomer.

In Prometheus: The Life of Balzac, author Andre Maurois states that Balzac, a bachelor at the time the book was written, was privy to the confidences of many women, including the Duchesse d’Abrantès, Fortunée Hamelin, and Sophie Gay. Maurois argues that Balzac sees marriage as “a civil war requiring weapons and strategy in which victory (meaning personal liberty) goes to the better general,” and he further argues that Balzac is on the side of the wife. While I think Balzac was a remarkably enlightened man for his time, from a 21st century perspective, I don’t agree that The Physiology of Marriage places Balzac wholeheartedly on the side of the wife. The book was extremely popular with women at the time of its publication and no doubt it seemed revolutionary then. There are certainly many pro-wife statements but the book could well amount to a handbook of strategy for husbands. The Maurois bio, by the way, was written in 1965, and societal attitudes towards women have undergone a sizeable shift.

Given how the bikini-clad Helen Mirren has suddenly become a sex object at the age of 66, I’d say that this is no longer true:

The average age at which women are married is twenty years and at forty they cease to belong to the world of love.

But, according to Balzac, men enjoy a longer shelf life, and here’s a powerful observation:

On the other hand, a man at fifty-two is more formidable than at any other age. It is at this fair epoch of life that he enjoys an experience dearly bought, and probably all the fortune that he will ever acquire. The passions by which his course is directed being the last under whose scourge he will move, he is unpitying and determined, like the man carried away by the current who snatches at a green and pliant branch of willow, the young nursling of the year.

Can’t argue with that….

The Physiology of Marriage is available FREE for the Kindle, on the internet and at Project Gutenberg.

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Witches’ Sabbath by Maurice Sachs

“If the reader grants with me that the whole of our life is nothing more than an attempt to fulfill the dreams of our youth, he will understand that it is possible to search throughout the whole of one’s life for a happiness one has enjoyed as a child.” 

I came across the name Maurice Sachs (Maurice Ettinghausen) while reading a review at Book Around the Corner. Sachs sounded like an intriguing character–one of those almost people. Never really the first rank of anything but always hanging on the fringes of the Paris literati. He was born to a Jewish family in 1906. He later converted to Catholicism, and led a rather colourful bohemian life which included a fair amount of scandal and financial skullduggery. During the German Occupation of France, he was part of the forced enlistment of the STO: Service du Travail Obligatoire (Compulsory Work Service). This was conducted under the Vichy government with the result that hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen were shipped to Germany as a labour force.   

There is very little information about Sachs in English on the internet, and some of it is false. According to articles I read, once Sachs was part of the STO he was employed by the Gestapo as a paid informer.  Apparently he ratted people out to the Gestapo but ended up in Fuhlsbuttel prison/concentration camp after refusing to denounce a Jesuit priest. Other articles said that the Gestapo were fed up with Sachs’s false reports. Considering the degree of vilification, it’s all rather vague. The stories of Sachs’ s death are as muddied as some aspects of his life. One version has him lynched by other prisoners he’d informed against, and that after his death he was fed to the dogs, but that version has been debunked. Apparently, in 1945 he was shot while being marched by the SS as they retreated from Fuhlsbuttel; his body was left on the side of the road.

I was intrigued by all this information as it hooks into some of the questions I have about what really went on in France under the Nazi occupation. There are a number of figures whose actions remain murky–were they informers or collaborators or was this a cover for something else? I’ve never lived under an occupation, but this all reminds me of Simenon’s life under German occupation in WWI. Just what is legal and what is illegal shifts according to who makes the rules, and Simenon’s Three Crimes is a wonderful exploration of how some people exploited occupation for their own gains.

But back to Sachs. One of the reasons I read the memoir was because I hoped for clarification on Sachs’s role as an informer. Some sources state that Sachs “made money” by helping Jewish families escape. But then wasn’t it expensive to get the necessary documents? How much did he charge? What was the going rate? How many Jews did he assist to escape? Or did he just take the money and inform against them? There are probably no answers to these questions but at the same time I thought of Dr. Petiot, the mass murderer who in WWI German-occupied France also promised safe passage to S. America, but the Jews who paid his asking price ended up in an incinerator. Was Sachs simply a weak man who sold out his compatriots or did he play a dangerous double game by walking on both sides of the fence? In one sense Sachs doesn’t seem the hero type, but then again, if he played a double game, perhaps it’s difficult to tell just what was in his head. But I can’t erase the fact that he was forced labour for the Nazis, was then stuck in a prison for at least some failure of cooperation only to end up being shot in the head right before the war’s conclusion.

So I came to the memoir expecting some answers. In terms of my expectations I was disappointed. There’s virtually no clarification about exactly what Sachs was up to before his arrest. The book was finished in 1939 with a later (1942) 3 page postscript added. Perhaps if he’d survived he would have modified the memoirs. 

So what is the memoir? It’s a strange hodge-podge of gut-wrenching honesty in which Sachs lays bare his soul while admitting his many flaws and mistakes. But it’s also a study in avoidance. I don’t necessarily blame him for that avoidance; if I had to write a memoir, I’d gloss over some stuff I’d rather not think about or perhaps not even mention it at all. That’s the problem with memoirs. A memoir is a trade-off. We only get one-side, one version in which events may be cherry picked–whereas a well-researched bio will dig into the darkest secrets. Bottom line, I concluded I’d probably have been better off reading a biography of Sachs rather than his memoir.

The book’s strength is in its aphorisms. I could go through the book and select witty and wise sayings galore (along the lines of a minor Oscar Wilde):

Elegance, pleasure, etc., are ruinous tastes which one escapes only by intense specialization or by mediocrity.

I regard myself as a bad example capable of giving good advice.

Theft is as irresistible as physical desire can be on certain nights.

Maurice Sachs’s parents divorced when he was a young child, and this caused some financial hardships. Sachs’s mother sounds feckless and was not much of a money manager, but then again it sounds as though she acted in adulthood exactly as she’d been raised (spend and don’t worry about bills). When Sachs was a teenager, his mother, heavily in debt and facing arrest for writing a rubber cheque for 60,000 francs, swallowed poison (reminds me of Madame Bovary). The poison swallowed was an “insufficient dose” for death; she recovered and Sachs sold his mother’s last piece of jewelry in order to get her out of France before she was arrested. It was, he says:

“The best thing I’ve ever done in my life up to that point, the only human and valuable gesture of my whole existence.”

Yet he was castigated by the rest of the family who “would have prefered” Sachs to take the side of “economic morality.” Sachs adds the details that the cheque was written to “one of the richest men in France,” and that if anything he was the one most wounded by his mother’s fecklessness since he was bankrupted and lost, through his mother’s mismanagement, 700,000 francs “she legally administered.” The incident with Sachs’s mother involving the rubber cheque sets the stage for Sachs’s later attitude towards financial responsibility& debts.  

He recalls being “penniless in the middle of a rich family.” He admits stealing “two sous” as a child from the bag of wealthy visiting relatives in order to buy a tart, but repeat thefts illuminated that the thrill came from  “the anguished delight of the theft” and not the anticipated “craving for an almond tart.” Perhaps being surrounded by those who lacked nothing gave him a taste for luxury while he lacked the necessary means and drive to achieve this lifestyle. Sachs recalls wishing that he had been born a girl, and from this he draws the conclusion that he was predisposed to homosexuality. Sachs, however, did have a few brief adult liaisons with women but found them unfulfilling when compared to his homosexual relationships. Sachs details his childhood, his adolescence, his giddy youth, time in a seminary and his military service, yet he remains deliberately vague when it comes to his relations with some of the great names of the day. When finally unleashed in the salons of Paris and as a frequenter of Le-Boeuf-sur-le-Toit,  Sachs’s charm and fine connections explain why the doors of Paris salons opened to him. Repeatedly.

At times he is mercilessly honest about his character flaws. At one point, he’s barely eating, selling books, when he’s yanked out of poverty and given a job as a secretary which includes room and board. Sachs admits he misused the opportunity, getting into debt and not caring much about his employment. At another point in his varied career, he started a publishing business with Jacques Bonjean. He missed a great opportunity when he failed to publish All Quiet on The Western Front–a book he’d received from Count Kessler via Misia Sert. In typical Sachs style, he admits that the book sat on his desk for four months “during which I had neither the curiosity of the presence of mind to have it read by someone who knew German.”  Later, Sachs gets a job as Chanel’s secretary and claims there was a “misunderstanding.” Other sources state that he stole from her.

There are times when Sachs writes with deep regret and a sense of shame:

The Maurice Sachs who has left irritating memories in the minds of some (and some good impressions in the minds of others, and a mixture of the two elsewhere), the shady, evasive, scheming drunken, prodigal, chaotic curious, affectionate, generous, and impassioned Maurice Sachs  who has always taken shape somewhat in spite of myself, but with my complicity, and who has produced this occasionally repugnant, often attractive personality to which I give so much importance because it is, after all, myself, that Maurice Sachs whom I have since mistreated, humiliated, deprived, then encouraged to do better, whose worse defects I have tried to canalize, whose defects I have tried to develop, this man whose human dignity, along with its attendant virtues, I have never despaired of (since he mattered more to me than anyone else), this man doesn’t bear my true name, but whose circumstances I can no longer change to give him my own because we have come too far together, this Maurice Sachs whose hand along with mine I hope is writing here the confession that closes a cycle of our lives….

While parts of the memoir assume a confessional tone, Sachs is clearly seeking understanding from the reader.

Nothing is this book will be comprehensible if the reader does not admit a constant duality in being, more punctilious, more complicated in its workings than the opposition, in each of us, of good and evil, a doubleness of each of the soul’s impulses:

There’s a self-loathing here that lingers beneath Sachs’s words. He recognised the duality of his nature but seemed unable to control the characteristics that dragged him down, but merged with that self-loathing is no small degree of self-delusion. We see opportunities handed to Sachs squandered, but still he continues on a roller-coaster ride of fortune.

I’ll admit that as an Anglo reader, I missed some aspects of the book. References to René Blum, Jean Couteau, Gide, and Max Jacob had me turning to the internet and some phrases were not translated. Now after reading the book, I have the impression that I saw but a glimpse of Sachs, and this glimpse is distorted–slightly out-of focus.

Book Around the Corner and I decided to read Witches Sabbath and post our reviews at the same time. This is an exercise in alternate reactions to the same material, so check out her response for another opinion

Translated by Richard Howard

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The Chouans by Balzac

In 2010, I finally finished Zola’s twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series, and it was time to move on to something else. Balzac seemed a good choice. I’ve read several novels–no firm count & with no particular plan in mind, but I’ve throughly enjoyed every Balzac novel I’ve read. So on to the task of reading La Comédie Humaine and Balzac’s novel, The Chouans, which appeared in 1829. Apparently, Balzac wrote and published other novels prior to The Chouans, but this was the first novel he actually put his name to. Reminds me of the amazing literary career of Simenon–another writer who, when he hit his stride, started his claim to fame by using his own name.

Balzac was thirty-years-old when The Chouans was published, and he had not yet formulated La Comédie Humaine. Within a few years, however, Balzac began organising his novels into categories:

Scenes of Private Life

Scenes of Provincial Life

Scenes of Parisian Life

Scenes of Political Life

Scenes From Military Life

Scenes of Country Life

Philosophical & Analytical Studies.

The Chouans slots into Scenes from Military Life. According to translator Marion Ayton Crawford, Balzac was very much influenced by the phenomenally successful novels of Walter Scott, and that explanation really goes a long way towards understanding the romance and historical high adventure aspects of  The Chouans. This is a classic tale of treachery and romance–the individual vs. the cause in which the love between two people is put to the test through competing moral values. The novel is set in 1799 in Fougères, Brittany. My copy’s introduction includes some historical background to the period and even a few maps: it’s post French revolution, but Royalists still remain loyal to the Bourbons:

A series of sporadic counter-Revolutionary movements had started in 1792 in the West, and spread from the Vendée to the borders of Brittany and Normandy. They were led at first by the dispossessed minor clergy who refused to swear the required oath of allegiance to the Revolutionary civil powers, and later by noblemen relying on the Count of Artois who had promised to land in the West himself to lead a Royalist army, and on support from England and the continent.

Fresh from Zola’s Second Empire, I initially found the setting of The Chouans a bit disorienting. I didn’t really know what was going on, and so I did some additional digging which is included here for any reader who feels as I did in the first couple of chapters. The Chouannerie (1794-1800), the  “series of sporadic counter-Revolutionary movements” mentioned in the earlier quote, was a Royalist uprising–guerilla warfare directed against the forces of Revolutionary France. In Brittany, in spite of, or perhaps because of, recent Royalist defeats (including the death of the Royalist leader Boishardy) sentiment is particularly strong. The Blue Chouans support the revolution, while the White Chouans support the Royalists.

The novel begins with Republican commander, Hulot, in Brittany’s Chouan country. He’s been rounding up conscripts and requisitioned men “still interchangeable terms” apparently. This was one of the Chouans’ major beefs against the French Empire, so it makes a great deal of sense that Balzac chose to open the novel with a scene of conscription. As the men march toward the boundary of Maine and Brittany, tension mounts and the men slow down, much to Hulot’s consternation:

Only the partisans of the Republic marched almost gaily. As for the others, they might wear a wide variety of dress but their expressions and attitudes had the uniformity misfortune imposes. Peasants or townsmen, profound melancholy marked them all. Their silence was fiercely sullen. Their spirits seemed weighed down by the same heavy thought, which though it was undoubtedly grim could only be guessed at, for their faces were quite impenetrable. Only the extraordinary slowness of their march might seem to give away some secret calculation. A few among them, distinguished by the rosary worn round their necks in spite of the risk involved in preserving this evidence of a religion which had been suppressed but by no means destroyed, from time to time shook back their locks and raised their heads cautiously. They then stealthily scanned the woods, paths and great rocks that closed in on the way, like a dog putting his nose to the wind trying to scent game; but hearing only the monotonous tramp of their silent companions, lowered their heads again and resumed their despairing expressions, like criminals being led to the hulks to live or die there as they might.

Hulot expects an ambush, and he’s correct. His contingent of men face the Chouans who mimic owls to communicate with one another: “from that [sound] had come the nickname Chuin, which means screech-owl or barn owl in the local patois.”  The Republican forces are attacked by the Chouans & the conscripts escape while they can.

But skullduggery and high adventure are afoot. Enter the beautiful Marie de Verneuil. She’s been sent specifically to the region to engage the Royalist leader, the Gars (the Marquis of Montauran)–known to have a weakness for women–in a romantic relationship, and then lead him into capture. The situation is complicated by the fact that the Marquis has a comrade-in-arms, the reptilian Madame de Gua, who’s bitterly jealous of Marie. Madame de Gua is posing as the mother of the Marquis, so this scenario allows for some bitchy confrontations between Madame de Gua and Marie. Then to top it off, Marie and the Marquis fall in love….

I’m going to admit that while I enjoyed most of The Chouans, it was too romantic for my tastes. I much prefer the nastiness of Cousin Bette or Pere Goriot for example. The Chouans, I’d say, is an adventure-romance, and while most of the book is extremely powerful, I wasn’t that hot on the romance. Readers probably either buy into the instantaneous romance between the Marquis and Marie or they don’t. I’m in the latter camp, and that created a problem in terms of enjoyment. Just a matter of personal taste, and lest I give the wrong impression, I should add that the characters are all well-drawn, however, and the dialogue crackles. Here’s Madame de Gua warning the Marquis:

Always the same! Women are the one danger you’ll meet your death through. A wax doll makes you forget everything.

Balzac and human nature. There’s nothing better.

The highlight of the novel (and my favourite part) came after a nocturnal journey to a ruined château. Marie, with her escort of “blue” Chouans, accepts the hospitality of the Marquis. Marie’s first sight of the château is filled with foreboding:

The north wind was blowing through these ruins, to which the moon’s hazy light lent the character and aspect of a vast skeletal spectre. One would have to have seen it in its colours of grey-blue granite and blackish-yellow schist to appreciate the fantastically eerie suggestion of this empty and dismal shell. its disintegrating stonework and glassless windows, the gaping crenellations of the tower and split roofs, made it look like skeleton bones, and the predatory birds that flew off screaming added one more touch to the nightmarish resemblance.

I was rather interested in exactly why the pockets of rebellion continued so persistently in Brittany. The people there seemed to have little respect for the edicts of Paris, and were loyal to the crown. I found it curious that Breton peasants cared one way or another who ran the country, and then there was something inexplicable about their insular culture…. I began to wonder just how big a role smuggling played in the lives of the Chouans. It seems that salt smuggling did play a role in the uprising. After the revolution, the Brittany salt industry was subject to centralised tax. So here’s Paris taxing the area’s industry, dragging off their men for ridiculous wars, and stripping the priests of their power. No wonder they’re pissed off.

Here’s Balzac with his usual love of detail describing some of his characters’ extraordinary clothes:

A number of townsmen were to be seen among these half-barbarous men, as if to mark civilization’s farthest boundaries in these regions. They wore round or cocked hats or peaked caps and top-boots or shoes held by gaiters, and their costume, like the peasants’, divided them into groups showing notable differences.

Finally a mention of a couple of the complete rotters in the novel: Abbé Gudin–a nasty defrocked priest who refused to take the oath of allegiance, and Corentin a “sinister individual” who is a prototype for Vautrin.

For a comprehensive summary of The Chouans, go to Balzacbooks.wordpress.com

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