Tag Archives: 19th century French literature

The Corsican Brothers: Alexander Dumas

“In a quarrel, the origin is not of any consequence.”

I’ve seen a couple of versions of The Corsican Brothers: The Douglas Fairbanks Jr. swashbuckler version

Corsican brothers

and the crude, hilarious Cheech and Chong version:

Also the Corsican Brothers

And that brings me to the source material: the novella from Alexander Dumas.

It’s 1841. The story begins with our narrator, a Frenchman who is journeying through Corsica, explaining the custom of claiming a night’s free board and lodging just by picking the “most commodious house,” and explaining you’re a traveller. The narrator (Alexander) explains this is seen by the owner of the house, as a honour, since you’ve picked his house out of the entire village.

Sounds like a bit of scam to me. Imagine trying to pull that these days.

Anyway, Alexander travels to Sullacaro, and notices that all of the houses seem fortified. In some of the houses, the windows are bricked up, or “guarded by thick planks , provided with openings large enough to pass a gun through.” The narrator selects the house that looks the finest but oddly enough is the only house that is not fortified. This is the home of the widow Savilia de Franchi, a woman about 40 years old, the mother of 21-year-old twin boys: Lucien and Louis.

Fortunately for the reader, the narrator is the sort of person who is interested in his surroundings. He’s given the room which belongs to the absent son, Louis, who resides in Paris, training to be a lawyer. It’s obvious from the room’s contents that Louis is a great admirer of all things French, and then the narrator meets Lucien, his brother’s opposite. In childhood, it was impossible to tell them apart, but now Louis wears French clothing, reads French books, while Lucien is deeply Corsican.

While Louis’ room is full of French books, Lucien, now an arbiter between warring factions, is more into weaponry. He  has an impressive arsenal which includes a dagger owned by the legendary Sampiero.

The narrator spends a day with Lucien who negotiates a truce to end a vendetta between two families–a vendetta which started over a chicken.

A hen escaped from the yard of the Orlandi, and flew over into that of the Colonna. The Orlandi went over to claim their hen, but the Colonna refused to give it up, claiming it as their own; the Orlandi then threatened to take them to a justice of the peace. The old mother Colonna, who kept the hen in her hands, then twisted its neck, and threw it in her neighbor’s face saying, ‘Well then, if she belongs to you, eat her.’ One of the Orlandi then picked up the hen, and was going to strike the offender with it; but at that moment, one of the Colonna, who, unfortunately, had a loaded gun in his had, took aim at him, and shot him dead on the spot.

And how many lives have now been paid for this scuffle?

There have been nine persons killed altogether.

And that for a wretched hen worth only twelve sous.

No doubt the hen was the cause; but as I have told you already, it is not the cause, but the result you must look at 

Over the course of his stay, the narrator learns that the two young men, Louis and Lucien are deeply bonded, and when one falls ill or is distressed, the other twin feels it, hundreds of miles away. Then the narrator returns to Paris and meets Louis. We see scores settled, and the way two cultures settle those scores:

not after the Corsican fashion, from behind a hedge, or over a wall. No, no, but after the French manner, with white gloves, a shirt frill and ruffles.

Once the stage is set, a fairly predictable course of events take place, and since this is an action-based vendetta story, there wasn’t any room for character development. Still I enjoyed the story for its strong Corsican bent, and the idea that twins possess an unearthly bond.

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Like Death: Maupassant

“Daylight poured into the enormous studio through an open bay in the ceiling: this oblong of brilliant light–an immense perforation in the remote azure infinity–was ceaselessly crisscrossed by sudden flights of birds.”

Maupassant’s delicately sensitive novel, Like Death is an exploration of aging, love and to a lesser degree the hollowness of fame. Painter Olivier Bertin is at the pinnacle of his long successful career, and yet although he’s achieved fame and material success (unlike most artists) he’s not a happy man. But neither is he unhappy–rather, he is bored and discontent. Now Bertin is at an impasse in his career and he’s beginning to wonder if he’s lost his “inspiration.” Every idea he has seems stale.

Rich, famous, the recipient of many honors, he remains, toward the end of his life, a man unaware of the ideal he is pursuing.

His art follows the style worshiped by dictated tastes of the Academy: “great historical scenes” and “living men along classical lines.” But a successful artist does not work in a vacuum.

Perhaps, too, the world’s sudden infatuation for his work–always so elegant, so correct so distingué–has had a certain influence on his nature and kept him from being what he would in the course of things have become. Since the triumphs of his early work, a constant desire to please has unconsciously haunted him, secretly impeding his development and attenuating his convictions. his craving to please, moreover, had shown itself in a great variety of forms and contributed a good deal to his renown.

Countess Anne de Guilleroy, the wife of a conservative politician, has been Bertin’s mistress since posing for her portrait many years earlier. She’s promoted his work and encouraged him in “considerations of fashionable elegance,” so in other words, she’s helped his career and kept his art safely in the commercially successful category. Over the years, their relationship has waxed and waned; he’s had other mistresses but he always returns to her, and “her life [is] a constant combat of coquetry.” At this point in time, facing old age, Bertin’s regretting that he couldn’t marry her and that he is alone.

like death

Everything for Bertin and the Countess changes with the arrival in Paris of Annette, the Countess’s 18 year old daughter who’s there to be married off to a wealthy young man…..

An almost macabre dance between Bertin, the Countess and her daughter begins to take place. Bertin is awed by the young girl and considers her even more beautiful than her mother. Is she his next, most significant, muse? Meanwhile the Countess begins to wonder if her daughter is her fatal rival.

Like Death boldly confronts aging as Bertin feels jealous of the young girls fiance but sadder still is the fact that the Countess finds herself a poor rival against her daughter’s youth. So we see aging as the enemy of love: Bertin falls in love with a young girl who likes him but doesn’t conceive of him as a romantic suitor, and the Countess sees herself aging and is desperate to be attractive. There’s, of course, an immense sense of futility here as Bertin, thinking she’s his next muse, plies Annette with expensive gifts, and the Countess decides never to stand next to her daughter in bright light. In another writer’s hands, this could be a farce, but Maupassant grants both Bertin and the Countess dignity.

In one very poignant scene, the Countess prays for her beauty to remain, that she can stay attractive for just a few more years.

Then, having risen, she would sit before her dressing-table, and with a tension of thought as ardent as if in prayer, she would handle her powders, her cosmetics, her pencils, the puffs and brushes which gave her once more a beauty of plaster, daily and fragile.

While Like Death is not as perfect as Bel Ami, thanks to its subject matter, it’s relevant, and Maupassant shows incredible empathy as he gently explores the Countess’s fears and vanity.  As I read this I was reminded of Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved, a novel in which a sculptor, in his search for the perfect woman, courts three generations from the same family.

Review copy

Translated by Richard Howard

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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

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The Jinx: Thèophile Gautier

What is shrouded in the fogs of England becomes clear in the sunlight of Naples…”

The Jinx, a short tale from French author Thèophile Gautier is a tale of fate, love and the Evil Eye. My edition, translated by Andrew Brown, is from Hesperus Press, and it’s a perfect little tale to read and finish on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

The story opens with the arrival in Naples of a young Frenchman, Paul d’Aspremont.

His eyes in particular were extraordinary; the black lashes that bordered them contrasted with the light grey colour of his irises and the burnt brown tones of his hair. The thinness of the bones in his nose made these eyes seem set more closely together than the proportions established by the principles of drawing allow, and, as for their expression, it was quite indefinable. When they were gazing into space, a vague melancholy, a fondly lethargic expression could be read in them, and they had a moist gleam; if they focused on any person or object, the brows came together, contracted, and carved a perpendicular crease in the skin of his forehead: his irises, turning from grey to green, became speckled with black spots and streaked with yellow fibrils; his gaze flashed from them, piercing and almost wounding; then all resumed its initial placidity, and this character with his Mephistophean appearance turned back into a young man of the world.

While initially Paul appears to be a tourist, it’s soon revealed that he’s in Naples to join his fiancée, a young orphaned English girl named Alicia Ward, who’s travelled to a warmer climate in the company of her uncle. While the two young people reunite in joy, a dark cloud soon hovers over their relationship. Wherever Paul fixes his gaze, tragedy and disaster soon follow, and while the young lovers seem oblivious to this phenomenon, the people of Naples, including the Count Altaville, recognize the danger as … The Evil Eye!!

the jinx

While this tale may sound a little over-the-top, Gautier is convincing with his presentation of inescapable fate and tragic love. Paul d’Aspremont and Alicia Ward are visitors to Naples, and the beliefs of the locals seem to have little relevance to the elegance of the fastidious Frenchman or the fresh, fragile beauty of the young Englishwoman. At first they appear to be untouched by the superstitions of the region. Gradually, however, with an ever-encroaching sense of doom, it becomes clear that Naples is not the problem…

The introduction mentions that Gauthier was influenced by Hoffmann, but that Gauthier soars above “his rivals,” with his “high stylistic sheen.” I’ve read and enjoyed a few Hoffman stories, but Gauthier’s tale seems superior. We arrive in Naples with d’Aspremont and see the city, and its foreign customs, through his eyes. D’Aspremont and Alicia seem ‘normal’ and wholesome (after all, here are two young lovers who have promised to marry), and it’s Naples and its inhabitants that seem dark, archaic and superstitious.  Drawn gradually into the story, the easy dismissal of superstitious nonsense morphs into desperate hope until the full horror of the curse borne by d’Aspremont is revealed, and it’s this inversion, if you will, the evil carried unwittingly by an innocent that makes this story so powerful

Part of Gauthier’s skill resides in his imagery. At one point, for example, Paul likens Alicia to Ophelia, and Alicia talks about her dislike for bouquets and “the corpses of roses.” Even the gorgeous descriptions of lush landscapes harbor an undercurrent of exotic menace:

The calash left the main road, turned onto a track and stopped in front of a door formed by two pillars of white bricks, topped by urns of red clay, in which blossoming aloe flowers spread out their leaves, similar to sheets of tin plate and pointed like daggers. An openwork fence, painted green, served as a gate. Instead of a wall there was a cactus hedge whose shoots twisted themselves into irregular patterns and wove their sharp-pointed prickly pears into an inextricable tangle.

And to give another example of Gauthier’s silken, yet precise, sentences, here’s Paul looking in the mirror.

He stood in front of a mirror and gazed at himself with frightening intensity; that composite perfection, the result of beauties that are not usually found together, made him resemble more than ever the fallen archangel, and gleamed with a sinister light in the dark depths of the mirror; the fibrils of his eyes quivered like the bow from which the deadly arrow has just taken wing; the white furrow in his brow recalled the scar left by a bolt of lightning, and in his gleaming hair hellish flames seemed to be flickering; the marble pallor of his skin exacerbated each feature of this truly terrible physiognomy.

Paul felt frightened by himself-it seemed to him that the emanation of his eyes, reflected by the mirror, reverberated towards him in the shape of poisoned darts, like Medusa gazing at her horrible and charming head in the fawn reflection of a bronze shield.

Max’s review

Kevin’s review

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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

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La Grenadiere: Balzac

La Grenadiere is a short story which given its subject matter is inevitably heavy on sentiment, but I’ll move that aside and instead concentrate on the story’s strengths–the descriptions of the house known as La Grenadiere-a “little house on the right bank of the Loire as you go downstream,” near the village of Saint-Cyr.

Balzac gives a long description of the house and its surrounding two acres of vineyards. While the house is relatively humble and crude, its isolation, picturesque views and spectacular setting make this house a rare jewel for those lucky enough to rent it from its owners.

La Grenadiere itself, halfway up the hillside, and about a hundred paces from the church, is one of those old-fashioned houses dating back some two or three hundred years, which you find in every picturesque spot in Touraine. A fissure in the rock affords convenient space for a flight of steps descending gradually to the “dike”–the local name for the embankment made at the foot of the cliffs to keep the Loire in its bed, and serve as a causeway for the highroad from Paris to Nantes. At the top of the steps a gate opens upon a narrow stony footpath between two terraces, for here the soil is banked up, and walls are built to prevent landslips. These earthworks, as it were, are crowned with trellises and espaliers, so that the steep path that lies at the foot of the upper wall is almost hidden by the trees that grown on the top of lower, upon which it lies. The view of the river widens outr before you at every step you climb to the house.

At the end you come to a second gateway, a Gothic archway covered with simple ornament, now crumbling into ruin and overgrown with wildflowers–moss and ivy, wallflowers and pellitory. Every stone wall on the hillside is decked with this ineradicable plan-life, which springs up along the cracks afresh with new wreaths for every time of year.

The worm-eaten gate gives way into a little garden, a strip of turf, a few trees, and a wilderness of flowers and rose bushes–a garden won from the rock on the highest terrace of all, with the dark, old balustrade along its edge. opposite the gateway, a wooden summer-house stands against the neighbouring wall, the posts are covered with jessamine and honeysuckle, vines and clematis.

And we haven’t even reached the house yet…

A garden, such as Balzac describes, can only be cultivated over a period of many years, and it achieves that rare state of established, almost deserted, neglected and yet abundant nature which seems to exist beyond the tending hands of man.

Balzac’s story takes place during the Restoration and concerns a mother who rents the house and takes up residence with her two sons. She calls herself Mme Willemsens but in actuality, she’s Augusta, Countess of Brandon. This short tale is the end of the story of the Countess of Brandon (she appears elsewhere in La Comédie Humaine,) but not the end for her two sons. The story is really an episode in the life of the mother and her sons, so its worth resides in picking up the lives of these characters later….

Balzac’s descriptive powers excel here in the description of the house and he manages to create an impression that the timeless qualities of the house and the garden far outlast the people who pass through its door. The result is a snapshot in the history of this marvelous house–almost as though the ghost of these memories still reside within its walls.

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Love in a Mask: Balzac

Love in a Mask or Imprudence and Happiness; a hitherto unpublished novel  (L’Amour Masque) was written by Balzac and given as a gift to the Duchesse de Dino. The handwritten manuscript, “incased in finely tooled binding,” remained in the library until gifted and finally published in 1911. Imagine Balzac giving you a handwritten story as a gift.

Love in a Mask is predominantly a romantic tale of a young captain in the Sixth Horse, Léon de Préval, who, when the novel opens, attends a ball on the eve of Mardi Gras. It’s midnight and he’s about to leave when he notices a richly dressed masked woman. They fall into conversation, and the woman, it turns out, is a young widow, who’s enjoying her newfound freedom. Soured by her experiences as a married women, she spurns Léon’s murmurs of sympathy at the death of her husband:

Constancy is but a chain that we pretend to wear in order to impose its weight on another. Now that I am free, perfectly free, I intend to remain so; no man living could induce me to forswear myself.

Léon tries to discover the woman’s identity, but she refuses to give it. She does agree, however, to a meeting at yet another ball in three weeks time. They meet again, and once more the woman wears a mask. He asks for a third meeting and an opportunity to “lay my heart and my hopes at your feet.” (is this a euphemism for sex?) She arranges a third meeting but only if Léon agrees to certain conditions…

While I dislike romances, Balzac creates a well-balanced tale, complete with a coincidence that we could believe is the guiding hand of fate, in which he once again examines the plight of married women who are at the mercy of their demonic husbands. He also argues that this young widow, soured by marriage, is wrong to close herself off to the possibility of love. All men cannot be measured by the experiences with one rotter.

Translated by Alice M. Ivimy

The novel can be read online on Dagny’s blog

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A Dilemma: Joris-Karl Huysmans

How delightful to discover a newly-translated work from Joris-Karl Huysmans. It’s A Dilemma from Wakefield Press, and clocking in at 79 small pages, this is a long short story, but what a story. Dripping with obvious disdain for the bourgeoisie, Huysmans shows how, in late 19th century France (the story was published in 1888), the bourgeoisie ruled and woe betide any person who gets in the way of a comfortable life or a good meal.

The story begins with two men, both widowers, Maître Le Ponsart and his son-in-law Monsieur Lambois, discussing Jules, Ponsart’s grandson, the son of Lambois, who has recently died after a brief, unexpected illness, in Paris. Are these two men, one elderly and the other middle-aged mourning, or shedding a tear? No. They’re deciding how to carve up Jules’s estate, so according to the Civil Code, they anticipate getting “fifty thousand francs apiece.”

a dilemmaThere’s already something distasteful about this scene. The implication is that the two men have just finished a meal. Little details say a lot:

In the dining room, which was furnished with an earthenware furnace, cane chairs with twisted legs, and an old oak sideboard, made in Paris at Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, that held behind glass panels gold plated chafing dishes, champagne flutes, and a complete white porcelain dinner set edged with gold that had never once been used–there, beneath a photograph of Monsieur Thiers, weakly lit by a hanging ceiling light that glowed down on the tablecloth, Maitre Le Ponsart and Monsieur Lambois folded their napkins, signaled with a glance for the maid to bring them coffee, and fell silent.

I loved the mention of the dinner set that had never been used for it reminded me of how people cover their couches with plastic which seems to arise from the desire to preserve the precious furniture while making it simultaneously uncomfortable and ugly.

But the delicious details continue. Ponsart, a notary, takes a penknife with its mother-of-pearl handle and cuts the tip of a cigar while he coolly discusses the death of his grandson. It’s immediately clear that these two men, initially tied by marriage, share a great deal in common. They’ve both lost their only children, they’ve both lost their wives (there’s something very cold about these two connections) and even more importantly, they are bonded by their shared bourgeois values, and nothing is going to shake their comfort and privilege.

However, “A Dilemma” has presented itself in the form of a young woman named Sophie who lived with Jules and endured the fiction of being his ‘maid’ when Jules’s father visited just prior to his son’s death.  Lambois has received a letter from Sophie stating that she is pregnant with Jules’s child and asking for money. Ponsart and Lambois interpret the request to be blackmail. Since Lambois is ill with gout (which according to Wikipedia is also known as “the rich man’s disease,”) Ponsart agrees to go to Paris, remove all of Jules’s furniture and shake the girl free of any claims against the family. The two men discuss the enemy:

“She’s a tall, beautiful girl, a brunette with fawn-colored eyes and straight teeth; she speaks very little, and her discreet and artless demeanor leads me to think she’s a crafty and dangerous person; I fear you have a tough opponent, Maître Le Ponsart.”

“Bah, bah, that little hen would need strong teeth to bite an old fox like me; anyway, I still have that police commissioner friend in Paris who can help me if necessary; as crafty as she may be, I have a number of tricks up my sleeve and I’ll bring her to heel if she makes any fuss; in three days my expedition will be over, and I’ll come back and claim from you, as a reward for my successful endeavors, another glass of this old cognac.”

I’m not going to say a great deal more about the plot, but it’s intriguing to consider the basic premise of this story: two men, one elderly, one in late middle age who’ve survived their children and their wives, and who are now presented with a future illegitimate grandchild. How would this scenario play out with let’s say Dickens, Hardy or Balzac? How will it play out with Huysmans?

The publisher describes this as a “nasty” little tale, and I can’t think of a better word. There’s something so inherently wrong, so distasteful about these two bourgeois men going to battle against a penniless, pregnant girl. While the young woman, Sophie, obviously loved Jules and nursed him through his illness and death, her selfless acts (having sex with Jules and later nursing him without money in the equation) are interpreted in the worst possible light by Ponsart who projects his own materialism onto the unfortunate, defenseless Sophie.

Ponsart fancies himself as a bit of a ladies’ man but really that interprets to Ponsart using the services of prostitutes, and this trip to Paris, far away from the gossips of his home town may afford another opportunity for vice–a repetition of how he spent his youth when studying in Paris.

His instincts already well honed, he wasn’t too stingy in spending his money up to a certain point; if, during his Paris days, he let himself squander all he had on lavish orgies, if he did not scrimp unduly with a woman, he expected to get from her in exchange a dividend of tariffed pleasures prorated to an amorous scale drawn up for his use. “Equity in all things,” he would say; and as he paid out the coins in his pocket, he thought it only fair to apply a penal rate in pleasure to his money, collecting from his debtress such and such percent of caresses, but only after first deducting a carefully calculated number of considerations.

Ponsart salivates over visions of Sophie as he already knows that she’s not a virgin and considers her a “slattern“:

“If I’m to believe Lambois, she’ll be a big, appetizing girl with fawn-colored eyes, a plump brunette; heh, heh, that would prove that Jules had good taste.” He tried to picture her, conjuring up, to the detriment of the real woman whom he must inevitably find inferior to the imagined one, a superb hussy whose burgeoning charms he itemized, trembling.

Huysmans appears to have quite a bit of fun with the character of Ponsart–a man who remains oblivious to, and well-insulated against, the tragedy that plays out under his nose.  Huysmans, while ridiculing the trappings of the bourgeoisie lifestyle also illustrates how complex and hypocritical a value system they measure their behaviour against, so we see Ponsart completely unscrupulous when dealing with Sophie and yet worrying about the minutiae of keeping up the appearance of immaculate conduct. And finally I have to mention Madame Champagne, a stationer who rises to Sophie’s defense:

He was surprised, when he entered the room, to discover a large lady behind Sophie.

This lady stood up, gave a slight bow, and then sat back down. “What is the meaning of this?” he asked himself looking at that paunchy woman fit to burst in a dress of hideous ultramarine, upon whose neckline fell three layers of buttery chin.

Seeing the pink coral beads dangling from her crimson earlobes and a Jeanette cross twitching under the to-and-fro of an oceanic bosom, he thought the old lady was a fishwife dressed in her holiday clothes.

While this is a story of the bourgeoisie closing ranks against the poor, it’s impossible to miss that this is also a world managed and dominated by men.

Translated by Justin Vicari who also wrote an informative introduction.

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A Duel: Guy de Maupassant

Guy de Maupassant uses duel as farce in Bel Ami. His main character, Georges (the Bel Ami of the title) is more or less pushed into a duel against a rival journalist, and in order to go through with it, Bel Ami polishes off a bottle of brandy. Of course, the danger is exaggerated, later, with each subsequent retelling of the almost comical event.

In the short story, A Duel, Maupassant presents an entirely different scenario. It’s post Franco-Prussian war, and France is overrun with the victors.

The war was over. The Germans occupied France. The whole country was pulsating like a conquered wrestler beneath the knee of his victorious opponent.

On a train going to join his wife and children who are safe in Switzerland, is a certain M. Dubois “who during the entire siege had served as one of the National Guard in Paris.” Dubois is an unprepossessing figure:

Famine and hardship had not diminished his big paunch so characteristic of the rich, peace-loving merchant. He had gone through the terrible events of the past year with sorrowful resignation and bitter complaints at the savagery of men. Now that he was journeying to the frontier at the close of the war, he saw the Prussians for the first time, although he had done his duty on the ramparts and mounted guard on many a cold night.

Dubois isn’t happy to find himself surrounded by Prussians, and “he stared with mingled fear and anger at those bearded armed men, installed all over French soil as if they were at home, and he felt in his soul a kind of fever of impotent patriotism.” Also in the same railway carriage are two Englishmen who are there as sightseers.  The train stops at a village and a Prussian officer enters. The Englishmen stare with interest at the Prussian while Dubois pretends to read the newspaper. But in spite of Dubois’ attempts to avoid conflict, he’s provoked repeatedly by the Prussian officer who goads and insults Dubois until he can take no more. Given that the title of the story is A Duel, it’s easy to guess where the action goes.

But while the story touches on patriotism (from the author as well as from the characters), the story is also a piece on temperament. The Prussian is spoiling for his next fight while the “impassive” Englishmen are caught in the middle as spectators:

The Englishmen seemed to have become indifferent to all that was going on, as if they were suddenly shut up in their own island, far from the din of the world.

Maupassant volunteered during the Franco-Prussian war and many of his stories, including the unforgettable Boule de Suif (Butterball) are set during the period. While A Duel isn’t one of Maupassant’s  best short stories, it’s interesting for how Maupassant portrays the duel in this instance. A duel is a means of obtaining satisfaction, settling arguments, and while Bel Ami’s duel was really an empty, meaningless event, the duel here is brisk and brutal.

7 pages

Translated by A.E. Henderson & Mme Louise Quesada

 

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Sundays of a Bourgeois: Guy de Maupassant

Monsieur Patissot is the subject of Guy de Maupassant’s short story Sundays of a Bourgeois, a piece that’s really a study in character, and a piece in which Maupassant manages to get a dig in at Zola. M. Patissot is fifty-two when the story begins, and that’s an interesting place to start; he’s set in his career of government service (more of that later) and isn’t as much a failure with women as much as they are not a part of his life (again more of that later). Maupassant makes an argument for his character’s mediocrity–just look at the title alone, and he also lets us know that Patissot “failed in his examinations,” and so began a life of lowly government service through the help of a relative.

The story is broken into sections: Preparations for the Excursion, Fishing Excursion, Two Celebrities, Before the Celebration, An Experiment in Love, and a Dinner and some Opinions. As you can tell from the titles, the stories focus on Patissot’s leisure time, and Maupassant tells us, tongue in cheek, that “the tale of his excursions may be of value to many Parisians who will take them as a model for their own outings, and will thus, through his example, avoid certain mishaps.”

Preparations for the Excursion delves into Patissot’s career. Not destined for greatness,  Patissot “advanced very slowly, and would perhaps, have died a fourth-class clerk,” but for his powers of imitation. Always hoping for a pay raise, he tells himself he  “had too much self-respect” to grovel to “his superiors,” and claimed “his frankness embarrassed many people, for, like all the rest, he protested against injustice and favoritism shown to persons entirely foreign to the bureaucracy.” In spite of these comforting thoughts “his indignant voice never passed beyond the little cage where he worked.” So you can’t really dislike Patissot. He’s not a bad person and there’s a little comic touch to this poor little man who assuages himself with imagined principles which explain and excuse his lowly position. Of course, all those principles go flying out the window in time.

First as a government clerk, then as a Frenchman and finally as a man who believes in order he would adhere to whatever government was established, having an unbounded reverence for authority, except for that of his chiefs.

Patissot finally gets ahead in government office by imitating the appearance of Napoleon III, but he suffers a temporary setback when “the Republic was proclaimed,” His “ape like faculty of imitation,” was stymied until he began sporting a tri-clouded rosette, which, accompanied by a new demeanor, led to more promotions.

In his mid-fifties, health issues lead to an interest in exercise, and this heralds an orgy of consumerism:

He visited a so-called American shoe store, where heavy travelling shoes were shown him. The clerk brought out a kind of ironclad contrivance, studded with spikes like a harrow, which he claimed to be made from Rocky Mountain bison skin. He was so carried away with them that he would willingly have bought two pair, but one was sufficient. He carried them away under his arm, which soon became numb from the weight. He next invested in a pair of corduroy trousers, such as carpenters wear, and a pair of oiled canvas leggings. Then he needed a knapsack for his provisions, a telescope so as to recognize villages perched on the slope of distant hills, and finally a government survey map to enable him to find his way about without asking the peasants toiling in the fields.

Later in the story, in Two Celebrities, Patissot and a cousin travel to Poissy to the home of the painter Meissonier, and once there, the painter proudly gives a tour of his incredible home. Next onto the home of “the author of the Rougon-Macquart series,” Zola. This time we get a description of Zola’s home with “an immense table littered with books, papers and magazines,” and Zola is “stretched out” on an “oriental divan where twenty persons could have slept.”

Patissot and his cousin don’t get far in the conversation department until Patissot tells Zola that he owns a “superb property,” and “then in the heart of the man of letters, the landowner awoke.”  The visit is a success.

An Experiment in Love finds Patissot at the Folies-Bergere where he makes an assignation with one woman only to have another show in her place. Octavie is a tall, loud red-head who creates a series of embarrassing scenes:

Shame overwhelmed Patissot, who as a government employee, had to observe a certain amount of decorum. But Octavie stopped talking, glancing at her neighbours, seized with the overpowering desire which haunts all women of a certain class to make the acquaintance of respectable women. After about five minutes she thought she had found an opening, and, drawing from her pocket a Gil-Blas, she politely offered it to one of the amazed ladies, who declined, shaking her head. Then the big, red-headed girl began saying things with a double meaning, speaking of women who were stuck up without being any better than the others; sometimes she would let out a vulgar word which acted like a bomb exploding amid the icy dignity of the passengers.

Patissot, a man “full of that common sense which borders on stupidity,” isn’t a bad person, just an ordinary one, and his mis-adventures, viewed with just a hint of the malicious, border on comic. Patissot, who’s spent his youth working in a lowly, ill-paid position, finally has the means to do more than simply exist. He is in his 50s before he begins to branch out beyond his employment into any sort of social life, and if a youth in his 20s mis-steps then we have a coming of age story, but with Patissot stumbling along in his 50s, there’s a whiff of both the pathetic and the poignant to his Sunday adventures.

Translated by: A.E. Henderson and Mme Louise Quesada

44 pages

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