Category Archives: Sue Eugène

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

24 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Sue Eugène

Mysteries of Paris: Eugène Sue Part I: Translation Comparisons

At almost 1400 pages, I’m not going to claim that I’m close to finishing the mega volume, Mysteries of Paris from Eugène Sue. This  Penguin Classics edition is the first new translation in more than a hundred years, and with free or very low cost e-versions on the internet, the big question becomes, ‘is it worth it to spring for this new version?’ My opinion: if you’re ready to commit a large chunk of your reading life to this book, then it’s worth forking out for this new edition.

the mysteries of ParisThe Mysteries of Paris ran, as a series, in the Journal des Débats from June 1842-October 1843. The Penguin edition’s excellent foreword from Peter Brooks introduces the novel with an overview of the main characters and also details the reception of the series by its French readers, stating that it  “was perceived by many of Sue’s contemporaries to be dangerously socialist in its political agenda.”

It was certainly the runaway bestseller of nineteenth century France, possibly the greatest bestseller of all time. It’s hard to estimate its readership, since each episode was read aloud, in village cafes and in workshops and offices throughout France. Diplomats were late to meetings, countesses were late to balls, because they had to catch up on the latest episode. It was truly a national experience, riveting in the way certain celebrity trials have been on our time, breathlessly maintained from one installment to the next in a manner we now know through the television serial.

Brooks goes on to explain that Sue was only a “moderately successful author of seafaring tales and sentimental fiction” before he hit his stride with The Mysteries of Paris, and that “he began his exploration of low-life Paris largely from sensationalistic motives.” As the serial grew in popularity, fans wrote to Sue and “Socialist reformers, too, began to bombard Sue with ideas and tracts.” Sue’s work became part of a feedback loop between reader and author:

Sue began responding by way of his novel, introducing such reformist schemes as a nationally organized pawnshop that would provide credit to the poor, public defenders for the accused, and a hospice for the children of convicts. A real dialogue developed, and by the time the novel drew to its close, Sue was ready to proclaim himself a socialist.

Since one of the originally unintended, inadvertent results of The Mysteries of Paris was to raise social consciousness regarding the plight of the poor and disenfranchised, it’s inevitable that comparisons must occur between Sue and Dickens. It’s certainly something to think about…

The translators, while discussing the difficulties presented in translating slang note that “all three of the 1843 translations have considerable shortcomings and inaccuracies. None of the translations have been available in book form since the early twentieth century (all current e-book translations reproduce the British translation, which is characterized by significant omissions).” **Actually The Mysteries of Paris is available in another printed book form, but the edition available on Amazon states it’s just over 400 pages and one reviewer complains that the pages appear to have been scanned from a really old edition. Not sure what’s missing there….

This matter of omissions became glaringly apparent immediately. In the Penguin Classics edition, Sue begins chapter one “The Joint,” thus:

In the slang of murderers and thieves, a “joint” is the lowest sort of drinking establishment. Ex-cons, called “ogres,” generally run these taverns; or when it is an equally debased woman, she is known as an “ogress.” Serving the scum of Paris, inns of this variety are packed with freed convicts, swindlers, thieves, and assassins. Whenever a crime has been committed, the police first cast their nets in this mire, so to speak. And here they almost always find their man.

This opening should alert the readers to the sinister scenes that await them. If they proceed, they will find themselves in strange places, foul urban abscesses that teem with criminals as terrifying and revolting as swamp creatures.

We have all read the legendary work of the American Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, whose pages describe the brutal ways of savages, their quaint and poetic language, the countless tricks they use to pursue or flee their enemies. Their readers tremble for the welfare of the colonists and town dwellers when they consider how they are surrounded by these wild tribes whose bloody ways mark them off from all things civilized. For our own readers, we are going to attempt some episodes from the lives of French savages who are as far removed from civilization as the Indians Cooper so vividly described. And these barbarians are all around us, We will spend time in their dens in which they get together to plan murders and robberies, in the holes where they divvy up their victims’ spoils among themselves

And there’s more, a lot more, I’m not adding here….

This entire preamble is missing from the earlier kindle versions (either free or low cost), so it’s up to you to decide if you think this preamble added anything to the story. I think it did. If I’m going to spend a portion of my life reading a book this big, I want to read the whole thing–not the Reader’s Digest condensed version, thank you very much. In this preamble, Sue creates a titillating atmosphere, ramping up the thrilling, delicious suspense and naughtiness, coated with a collaboration between the writer and the reader to take this mysterious “journey” into the criminal underworld together.

Thus forewarned, readers may wish to follow us on the journey we are inviting them to take among the denizens of the infernal race that fills our prisons and whose blood stains the scaffolds. We do not doubt this investigation will be new for them. Let us reassure our readers that once they begin this story, with each step on its way, the air becomes purer.

Anyway, I’m reading The Mysteries of Paris, so there will be multiple posts this year–(there are ten “books’ with an epilogue), multiple translation comparisons (or omissions as in this case). In terms of readability, so far, I’m reminded of Dumas. The pages go down like honey.

Translated by Carolyn Betensky and Jonathan Loesberg.

Review copy

26 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Sue Eugène