Category Archives: Daudet Alphonse

Little What’s-His-Name: Alphonse Daudet

“He did not foresee that, all through his life, he should be condemned to drag about, in the same silly way, a blue cage, the color of illusion, and a green parrot, the color of hope!”

It’s an odd experience to move from reading Daudet’s brilliant, funny, and worldly-wise stories: Artists’ Wives to Little What’s His Name (Le Petit Chose). I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that these two books sprang from the same author. Little What’s-His-Name was Daudet’s first published book, and it’s autobiographical.

Little What’s-His-Name is Daniel Eyssette, and the story opens with his birth. Daniel, one of three sons, is born in Languedoc, to a successful man who owns his own silk factory.  Daniel says he was his “parents’ unlucky star,” as right after his birth “incredible misfortunes assailed them from all quarters.”

First there was the customer from Marseilles who stole 40,000 francs, then two fires, a strike, a family quarrel, a lawsuit, and the coup de grace … the Revolution of 1848.  Within a few years, the business is finished and the family leave the factory and their splendid home and move to Lyons (Daniel/Little What’s His Name loses his beloved parrot on the way.) Chapter II is called The Cockroaches for the family’s humble home is plagued with the insects who proceed to make hell for the Eyssettes.  The education of the two youngest boys, Jacques and Daniel, takes a hit due to lack of funds, and the boys attend a school for choirboys. Later a scholarship is offered for one of the boys and the father, who doesn’t seem to think that highly of Jacques, selects Daniel.

It’s a rather sad childhood marked by death, poverty, and memories of a better life. But there’s worse to come; within a few years, with their fortunes tumbling even further, the remaining members of the family split up with “each one to seek his fortune independently.” Daniel is sent off to be a schoolmaster thanks to the recommendation from a family friend.

By this point, Daniel has earned the name “Little What’s-His-Name” thanks to his diminutive size and I’m guessing also because of his ability to sink into the background. Working at the boys’ school is hell for Daniel as he’s smaller than the bigger students, but at least he gets half a bottle of wine at meals!

It’s at the school that Daniel learns some painful life lessons. Daniel is trying hard in his job, and likes teaching the younger boys, but he runs into problems when he punishes the unpleasant son of a Marquis. This incident, with its humiliating results, throws Daniel into bad company at the local inn. It’s a bitter experience to learn that the man you thought was your friend is using you and considers you an idiot, and that’s exactly what happens to Daniel. Without giving away arguably the best part of the plot, Daniel finds himself in Paris.

The first section of the book is the tale of Daniel’s early life and the time spent at the school. The second half concerns Daniel’s move to Paris (he lives with Jacques) and his attempts at a literary career.

Daudet has the habit of moving, in his narrative, from first person to third which I found a little odd. This seems to be driven by sentiment/emotion when Little What’s His Name is embroiled in an emotional scene or is humiliated. Almost as if Daudet is only comfortable imparting these scenes when moving further from the character.

The man with the mustache looked like a good fellow; on the way I learned that his name was Roger, that he was a teacher of dancing, riding, fencing, and gymnastics in the school of Sarlande, and that he had served for a long time in the African light horse. This was enough to make him entirely attractive to me. Children are always inclined to like soldiers. We separated at the door of the inn with much shaking of hands and the explicit promise of becoming friends. 

And now, reader, I have a confession to make to you.

When Little What’s His Name found himself alone in his cold room, in front of his bed in that strange and vulgar inn, far from those whom, he loved, his heart burst, and the great philosopher weep like a child. Life terrified him now, he felt weak and helpless to meet it. He cried and cried. 

I enjoyed the first half of the novel far more than the second half. The first half is powerful in its depiction of the innocence of youth, the battering, humiliating experiences that must be endured, and painful lessons regarding treachery. The second half lacks the same power. It’s too sentimental for my tastes, and that’s the problem with using autobiographical material. My copy comes from Mondial books with an introduction from W P. Trent who was also the translator,

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Artists’ Wives: Alphonse Daudet

“Artists who live only by and for the public, carry nothing home to their hearth but fatigue from glory, or the melancholy of their disappointments.”

Alphonse Daudet’s Artists’ Wives easily makes my best-of-year list. This themed collection of short stories argues “again and again that artists cannot be happily married.” The idea exists (is it broadly accepted?) that Art is a jealous mistress, and Daudet shows this argument to be true, repeatedly, through his stories. Yet it’s not as simple as that: Daudet creates 12 stories, 12 situations if you will, which argue his point from various, cleverly devised angles. The book begins with a prologue in which “two friends–a poet and a painter” spend an evening together. After dinner, the poet, who is single, declares that he envies his married friend, and so a dialogue begins with the painter stating categorically that artists “ought never to marry.”

Here’s the breakdown of the stories:

Madame Heurtebise

The Credo of Love

The Transteverina

A Couple of Singers

A Misunderstanding

Assault with Violence

Bohemia at Home

Fragment of a Woman’s letter found in the Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs

A Great Man’s Widow

The Deceiver

The Comtesse Irma

The Confidences of an Academic Coat

Daudet doesn’t just create an artist (who by the way can be a poet, a writer, a singer, a sculptor, a painter) who neglects his wife and dallies with his latest muse; no, Daudet is too ingenious for that. He creates 12 different scenarios of domestic hell all built around the complexities and complications of placing an ‘artist’ in the relationship.

Artists wives

Madame Heurtesbise would be arguably the one of the most predictable scenarios were it not for the sting in the story’s tale. Madame Heurtebise is seen as an unpleasant, pretentious woman:

having a certain love for glitter and tinsel, no doubt caught at her father’s shop window, making her take her pleasure in many-coloured satin bows, sashes and buckles; and her hair glossy with cosmetic, stiffly arranged over the small obstinate, narrow forehead, where the total absence of wrinkles told less of youth than of complete lack of thought.

This story, of a writer who marries an unimaginative woman, reminds me of the misery of married life found in George Gissing’s New Grub Street.

The Credo of Love, one of my favourites due to its dark humour, is the story of a woman who dreamed of being “the wife of a poet,” but instead she is married off to a wealthy, older man whose one “passion” is gardening.

She remained like this for a long time, closed in by the four walls of the conjugal garden, innocent as clematis, full however of wild aspirations toward other gardens, less staid, less humdrum, where the rose trees would fling out their branches untrained, and the wild growth of weed and briar be taller than the trees, and blossom with unknown and fantastic flowers, luxuriantly coloured by a warmer sun.

Bored, she turns once more to poetry, and then “at the terrible age of thirty, which seems to be the decisive critical moment for woman’s virtue” she meets “the irresistible Amaury,”

a drawing-room poet, one of those fanatics in dress coat and grey kid gloves, who between ten o’clock and midnight go and recite to the world their ecstasies of love, their raptures, their despair, leaning mournfully against the mantelpiece, in the blaze of lights, while seated around him, women, in full evening dress, listen entranced behind their fans.

Amaury  is “a desperate man such as women love, hopeless of life but irreproachably dressed, a lyric enthusiast, chilled and disheartened, in whom the madness of inspiration can be divined only in the loose and neglected tie of his cravat.”

A Couple of Singers is the story of two opera singers, one male, one female, who fall in love, inevitably, after singing love arias on stage to each other night after night. You’d think this match should work, after all, both husband and wife have the same career, but Daudet explores what happens when one partner in the marriage becomes more popular than the other.

A Misunderstanding is a he said/she said comparison (literally side by side pages) of a bickering couple.

Assault with Violence is a rather funny short story in epistolary form with lawyers writing back and forth and Nina, a woman who married a writer, sending letters about the situation to her aunt “an old maid.” Oh the horrors of married life to a “Bohemian.

A Great Man’s Widow, another favorite, concerns a woman who marries a musician who after 15 years of miserable married life, has the grace to die.

On the high road to fame, over which he had so triumphantly and hurriedly traveled, like those who are to die young, she sat behind him, humble and timidly, in a corner in the chariot, ever fearful of collisions.

But with the death of her husband, the widow finds that she has a newly gained stature: she is now the widow of a Great Man, and she capitalizes on this situation, becomes insufferable, marries a younger less well know musician and incorporates him into the cult-like worship of the dead man.

The Deceiver has a mystery at its dark heart, and The Comtesse Irma, sticks with me still–the saddest story in the collection.

I am impressed by Daudet’s agile mind and the subtle nuances of the stories. In the exploration of human nature, these stories are reminiscent of Balzac. The introduction from Olivier Bernier goes into Daudet’s life along with a description of how he stood as an artist during his lifetime.

Translated by Laura Ensor

 

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