The Mysteries of Paris: Eugène Sue (Part II)

Earlier this year, I took a look at (and started) Eugène Sue’s mammoth novel, The Mysteries of Paris. The Mysteries of Paris ran, as a series, in the Journal des Débats from June 1842-October 1843. I’m still chugging my way through it, and it’s hard to review as there are spoilers galore in every chapter. Each main character has at least one other identity, and their convoluted histories cross back and forth. Every time you think you have a handle on the plot, Sue throws in more to confound us.

the mysteries of Paris

As a writer, Sue is shameless. He’ll throw mention of a character into the narrative in a seemingly minor way, but you can almost hear the thunderclaps of suspense overhead. One of the characters mentions a lost son who is wearing a Lapis Lazuli cross; we don’t have to wait long; it appears in the next chapter. One character seems vile, but he flips into a decent sort within the space of a few chapters. People pop up and disappear. Conversations are conveniently overheard. Coincidence occurs so often, you’d think there were only a few dozen people living in Paris. It’s clear that Sue is thinking on the fly. This isn’t plotted out in minute detail in advance.

This is not great literature–it’s too melodramatic for that, but it’s still great fun. Sue is one hell of a plotter. If he were alive today, I could see him writing for one of those really tacky, addictive thrilling TV series: say The Affair, or Dallas back in the day.

The book’s main character and hero is Rodolphe; he’s actually a Grand Duke of some German principality whose agenda is to travel through the gutters of Paris in disguise and  save people from poverty and a life of crime. Rodolphe knows that many of the Parisians whose paths he crosses are mired in lives of poverty and crime for no fault of their own, and he also understands the difference between true evil and those who have to do what they do in order to survive. Hence he has no problem, for example, with Songbird, a young girl who’s enslaved in a life of prostitution, whereas he loathes the woman who abused Songbird: The Owl, a one-eyed hag whose secret weapon is a bottle of acid which she is prepared to throw on anyone who gets in her way.

Rodolphe even tolerates The Ogre: an innkeeper who whores out Songbird, and the message is that Rodolphe’s intolerance is for those who abuse and corrupt. This supposition comes true as we learn more of Rodolphe’s past.

I liked Rodolphe until he went all Old Testament on me. He’s a god-like figure dispensing bounty for those who deserve it and punishment for those who don’t. I’m still working on the book, so who knows what else Sue has in store.

Review copy



Filed under Fiction, Sue Eugène

24 responses to “The Mysteries of Paris: Eugène Sue (Part II)

  1. You’re right to compare it to Dallas. It had the same success at the time. It was a real popular event, lots and lots of people were addicted to this feuilleton

  2. Jonathan

    I find it difficult to get into books, films, tv series etc. that appear to be endless; I like some sort of conclusion. I start to get a bit restless when I feel that the author is just winging it. It looks like a very long book.

  3. Making it up as you go along just follows from the idea that it was published as a newspaper series, I suppose. And there is a charm to reading week by week about your own city in a more melodramatic light. But I agree with Jonathan that it gets a bit tiresome in book form. Sounds as if, like, Dickens, he ha some moral messages to deliver in a not very subtle way. (Unlike Dallas, or just like Dallas?)

  4. *chuckle* I’m unlikely to rush out and buy this book, but I loved your review. I laughed out loud at your suggestions for models for the TV series:)

  5. Good to hear you are enjoying it. Sue himself admits “this work is not a good one” later in the novel but it really depends on what you class as great litreature. Sue’s purpose in writing the book was to draw people’s attention to misery of the lower classes and also to write an exciting story. I think he succeeds on both counts. Melodrama gets a bad rap. I think there is a time and place for it. Count of Monte Cristo and Les Miserables are two other great melodramas. They also paved the way for the sensation novels of Wilkie Collins and Ellen Wood.

    I also thought that Sue was making it up as he went along and there is an element of it but I like the way he ties everything together at the end. Yes he does the whole trick of getting all the characters to meet in the one place but Hugo also does this in Les Miserables and few complained.

    I think Rodolphe is a prototype of Edmond Dantes and also of modern day superheroes such as Batman.

  6. Shorter than Hugo, longer than Count of Monte Cristo. In that general range, I guess. I admire your persistence and enjoy your writeups.

    If Rodolphe is a prototype of Edmond Dantes, that means he is another descendant of Balzac’s super-criminal / super-cop Vautrin! How interesting.

    • Yes I would say so. A handy list which might inspire some reading is

      Also I seem to remember you hated the love story between Maximilian and Valentine in Monte Cristo, although it didn’t seem any worse to me than Marius and Cosette. Anyway you would be pleased to know that Sue’s novel features a nice love story that develops from friendship rather than the usual love at first sight.

      Sue and Hugo make similar observations on society in their novels but I would say Hugo is more poetic but also over sentimental in places. I prefer Sue’s approach but there is nothing in his novel or any other novel I have read that equals “tempest in a skull” from Les Miserables. That chapter, about the turmoil of a man faced with an impossible dilemma, is the work of a true master.

    • Now that is an interesting list – thanks!

  7. Very interesting. Was it serialised at the time of its original publication or did it appear as a complete work?

  8. When will you be starting Alan Moore’s Jerusalem? A piece of cake at 1266 words.

  9. I’m always tempted to pick this up when I see this mentioned but since I don’t have a lot of patience when it comes to long books it might never happen. I enjoy your reviews though.

  10. Did you ever finish this? Sort of drags for the last 200 or 300 pages, eh?

    Sue’s political/cultural affinities are interesting… Associated with liberals and socialists? Yet his penal reform plans include blinding criminals and placing them in solitary confinement so that they can contemplate and come to regret their crimes. What some would consider the Nightmare of the Enlightenment.

    Check out Atar Gull for something lighter and weirder. Also available as a comic in English! 🤓

    • Yes I did finish it. Took a big chunk out of my reading year. It reminded me in parts of Casque D’or with Simone Signoret.
      I liked the way Sue shaped his story according to reader response. The story ended up being a lot darker than I expected it to be but lots of OTT flourishes.
      Well take a look at Gull

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