Tag Archives: 19th century French literature

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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Cousin Pons: Balzac

Continued from Part 1..

When Pons suffers the ultimate humiliation at the home of his relations, the de Marvilles, he decides to take his evening meals with his best friend, the naive German musician Schmucke. Schmucke and Pons work at the same theatre and lodge at the same building. Schmucke, who doesn’t care much about food, doesn’t understand Pons’s “gastric nostalgia,” and he treasures his friendship with Pons above all else. Events occur which further blacken Pons’s welcome at the de Marvilles’ home, and Pons subsequently becomes ill.  With Pons incapacitated in bed, and very possibly dying, the concierge Madame Cibot takes command of Schmucke & Pons–her two “nutcrackers.”  She and her tailor husband don’t own the building but instead they run it for the elderly absent owner. Cibot is ailing and finds it difficult to continue to work, and La Cibot bemoans the lack of private income while noting that servants are often left annuities by former, grateful employers. Before Pons’s illness she wasn’t a bad caretaker, but Madame Cibot has gradually taken over various aspects of Pons and Schmucke’s lives. She does their laundry, makes and mends clothes and even provides meals. It’s through these services that she gradually creeps into every aspect of the bachelors’ lives and she begins to become obsessed with gaining an annuity through inheritance. Once fixated on this idea, she becomes increasingly disgruntled and convinced that she’s owed. Balzac, as ever, that great chronicler of human nature understands Madame Cibot; need, opportunity and justification–all those elements twist and turn in a poisonous blend, and soon Madame Cibot plots to strip Pons of his fortune. But she isn’t the only one who can’t wait to get her hands on Pons’s art collection, and the vultures gather….

Through Cibot’s greed, Balzac introduces a network of corruption and some great secondary characters. The ambitious  ‘man of law’ Monsieur Frasier is by far the most intriguing. He’s a dangerous cobra–waiting to strike at his enemies, and someone you certainly don’t want to cross. Frasier has a checkered past and he’s desperate to get ahead in society:

The next day, at six in the morning, Madame Cibot was in the rue de la Perle, eyeing the abode of her future legal adviser, our Monsieur Frasier, man of law. It was one of those houses inhabited by erstwhile lower-middle-class people. You entered it from an alley. The ground floor was partly taken up by the porter’s lodge and the premises of a cabinet-maker whose workshops and showrooms encumbered a small inner courtyard. It was divided into two portions by the alley and the well of the staircase, into which saltpeter and damp had eaten. The whole house appeared to be suffering from leprosy.

Before meeting Frasier, Madame Cibot speculated why he didn’t marry one of his clients–a certain Madame Florimond. Frasier’s concierge tells Madame Cibot that she’ll understand when she sees Frasier:

Monsieur Frasier, a shriveled and sickly looking little man with a red face covered with spots which spoke of impurities in the blood, who moreover was constantly scratching his right arm, and whose wig, pushed far back on his head, incompletely concealed a sinister-looking, brick-coloured cranium, rose from the cane armchair in which he had been sitting on a green leather cushion. Assuming an amiable air and a fluting tone of voice, he said as he offered her a chair:

‘Madame Cibot, I think?’

Schmucke is the one perfectly good character in the book (Pons has the weakness of loving food), and so while Schmucke is completely sympathetic, his dialogue was maddening. Yes I know he’s German, but the passages of his broken English weren’t easy to plough through:

‘Unt yet,’ he continued, ‘zey haf hearts of golt. In a vort, zey are my little Saint Cecelias, scharmink vomen, Matame te Portentuère, Matame to Vantenesse, Matame to tillet. I only see zem in zehamps-Elyssées, vizout zem seeink me. Unt yet zey lof me much, and I coult stay in zeir country-house, put I like much pesser to pe viz my frient Pons, pecausse I can see him ven I vish unt efery tay.’

In Cousin Pons, Balzac shows that innocence, kindness and decency are poor adversaries against greed. Many people have designs on Pons’s valuable art collection, and its questionable acquisition will solve the problems of some characters and make the careers of several others. Some of the vultures who gather for the spoils are more vicious than their fellow predators; the powerless will always be powerless, even as they grab the crumbs from the table. As Madame Cibot notes:

‘I knew perfectly well, my dear Monsieur Frasier, that I shouldn’t get even a whiff of that particular roast…’

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Cousin Pons: Balzac

“And here begins the drama, or if you prefer, the terrible comedy of the death of a bachelor delivered over by the force of circumstances to the rapacity of covetous people assembled around his bed.”

Balzac’s Cousin Pons, published first as a serial in 1847, is subtitled: Part Two of Poor Relations. Part One of Poor Relations is Cousin Bette–in my opinion, a much better novel. That’s not to say that Cousin Pons is bad; it isn’t, but while Cousin Bette is the story of a bitter, twisted poor relation’s plot to destroy the Hulot family (and they fall into her spiteful hands), Cousin Pons is the story of a harmless bachelor whose illness and death are accelerated by his greedy landlady, local art dealers and relatives who all plot to get their hands on Pons’s valuable art collection. Cousin Bette’s relatives fall victim to her dastardly plot, and the Hulots are mostly destroyed through actions of their own choosing, but in Cousin Pons, Pons and his innocent, child-like friend, fellow musician, Schmucke, are no match for the vultures who gather to strip the two men of Pons’s fortune. So while we expect the Hulots to fall in Cousin Bette, it’s painful to read about the systematic stripping of Pons’s fortune. For a great deal of the novel, Pons, who really should be a central character, is ill in bed, and that leaves secondary–albeit much more interesting characters–to carry the plot. It’s in these secondary characters that the book’s strengths can be found.

cousin ponsBut now to the plot…

Cousin Pons is the poor relation of a large extended family. The first few pages of the novel describe Pons’s appearance. It’s 1844, but Pons is dressed with “an unconquerable fidelity to the modes of 1806.” And here’s a beautiful long quote about his attire:

And so this thin, dried-up old man wore a nut-brown spencer over a greenish coat with white metal buttons! In 1844, meeting a man in a spencer made it seem as if Napoleon had deigned to come back to life for an hour or two.

Now spencers were invented, as the name implies, by an English lord who was doubtless vain of his elegant figure. Some time before the Peace of Amiens, this Englishman had solved the problem of covering his torso without burying himself in a carrick, that horrible garment which is now ending its days on the shoulders of old-fashioned cabmen. But as slender waists are scarce, the male fashion in spencers was short-lived in France, even though it was an English invention. At the sight of this gentleman’s spencer, spectators in their forties and fifties mentally arranged him in top-boots and ribbon-bowed, pistachio-green kerseymere breeches. They saw themselves back in the costume of their youth. Old women started living their love lives over again. Young people wondered why this Alcibiades had cut off his coat-tails. Everything else about him went so well with this spencer that you would not have hesitated to set this passer-by down as an ‘Empire Man’, just as one speaks of ‘Empire furniture’. But he symbolized the Empire only for those who knew something, at least from illustrations, about that superb and impressive era. The Empire is already so distant from us that not everybody can conjure it up in all its Gallo-Grecian reality.

So Pons is the sort of man it’s easy to poke fun at. He’s very thin, unattractive and he holds a position as a conductor in a theatre. Pons appears to be very poor, but in fact he’s managed over the years to amass a fantastic art collection. Balzac, ever a writer to exploit the hidden fixations of his characters, states: “you could see at a glance that he was a well-bred man addicted to some secret vice, or one of those persons with private means whose every disbursement is so strictly limited by the modesty of their income that a broken window-pane, a torn coat, or that plague of our philanthropic age, a charity collection, would cancel out their petty enjoyments for a month.”

So that’s one of Pons’s vices–almost all of his money goes towards this fantastic collection of objets d’art including “forgotten relics of seventeenth-and eighteenth century art,” Sèvres porcelain, snuff boxes and miniatures. But Balzac doesn’t think that Pons’s obsession with his art collection is necessarily a bad thing:

For in truth, to adopt a mania is like applying a poultice to the soul: it can cure any taedium vitae, any spleen. Let all those no longer able to drain what has always been called ‘the cup of joy’ take to collecting something (even advertisement bills), and in this they will find the solid gold of happiness minted into small coinage.

But Pons does have a weakness: he lives to eat well, and he cannot bear to eat simply. Over the years, he’s managed to meet his gastronomic cravings by invitations to the best houses in Paris, but as the years wear on, and Pons ages and becomes more and more unattractive, the invitations to dinner are few. There was a period when he made himself useful to his hosts and even served as a sort of spy, but those days are over. There are just a couple of houses where he is considered the poor relation who must be tolerated, and he becomes that dreaded figure; the “hanger-on.” And this is where all the problems begins when he shows up at dinner time at the home of his relatives, the Marvilles. Pons is such an object of ridicule that the servants feel free to treat him badly, and even though Pons arrives with an extremely valuable Watteau as a gift, 23 year-old Cécile de Marville fabricates an excuse to leave so that they can ditch Pons. There’s not much of an attempt made to hide the ruse, and Pons is humiliated….

More in part II

Translated by Herbert J. Hunt

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The Deserted Woman by Balzac

In his short story, The Deserted Woman, Balzac is back on familiar ground writing about another unhappily married woman, but the twist here is that the woman had a lover, left her husband and was subsequently abandoned.  It’s 1822, and Mme de Beauseant, a woman with a soiled reputation, now lives a reclusive life in her high-walled estate, Courcelles, in Lower Normandy.

Wealthy, twenty-three-year-old (at another point we’re told he’s 22) Gaston de Nueil is sent from Paris to his cousin’s house in Lower Normandy to recover from “an inflammatory complaint, brought on by overstudy, or perhaps by excess of some other kind.” After we read a bit more about Gaston, the speculation about “overstudy” seems unlikely, and that leaves the other possibility at the root of his exile, “excess of some other kind.” And this last possibility seems increasingly likely as the story continues. Gaston is an obsessive and a Romantic–a dangerous combination. Unfortunately his temperament is not suited to the social climate at his cousin’s house, and he very soon meets and is bored by “the whole town.” Balzac can’t resist a dig at this provincial society and the stratification of the local aristocracy–big fish in a small pond:

First of all comes the family whose claims to nobility are regarded as incontestable, and of the highest antiquity in the department, though no one has so much as heard of them a bare fifty leagues away.

Balzac has so much fun with these provincials that he carries on poking fun at the locals for a few pages.

A couple of evenings spent at his cousin Mme de Sainte-Severe’s home and poor Gaston is bored to tears, enjoys a few days of “vegetable happiness,” is beginning to find that he has “sunk back into the lifeless life of the provinces,” and then he overhears a tantalizing conversation regarding a certain Mme de Beauseant:

The women appeared to take counsel of each other by a glance; there was a sudden silence in the room, and it was felt that their attitude was one of disapproval.

“Does this Mme de Beauseant happen to be the lady whose adventure with M. d’Ajuda-Pinto made so much noise?” asked Gaston of his neighbor.

“The very same,” he was told. “She came to Courcelles after the marriage of the Marquis d’Adjuda; nobody visits her. She has, besides, too much sense not to see that she is in a false position, so she has made no attempt to see any one. M. de Champignelles and a few gentlemen went to call upon her, but she would see no one but M. de Champignelles, perhaps because he is a connection with the family.

Mme de Beauseant is considered “quite mad,” and the argument for that is that she left her husband “a well-bred man of the world, who would have been quite ready to listen to reason.” So the implication here seems to be that the fact she had an affair is not why she is considered “quite mad,” but her sanity is in question because she left her husband–a man who, no doubt, has affairs of his own and would have turned a blind eye to those of his wife.

With a sense of “fatality,” (and just how fatal this is becomes apparent by the story’s end), Gaston feels drawn to Mme de Beauseant, and although she lives  a life of seclusion, he plots to gain access to her under false pretences. His youth may excuse part of his selfish drive, for he either fails to grasp or simply doesn’t care that he’s placing Mme de Beauseant in a very vulnerable position. He does, of course, eventually meet this woman, and it’s for the reader to decide if she is a femme fatale or if Gaston is the homme fatale in this story–a story which works with a stunning symmetry.

As always, Balzac’s great talent is his insight into human nature. Gaston, the obsessive romantic can’t help himself when faced with this tragic figure of Mme de Beauseant, a woman who’s already broken the rules of society and has staked all on the promises given to her by a lover. Gaston is captivated by Mme de Beauseant:

The triple aureole of beauty, nobleness, and misfortune dazzled him.

In one scene Mme de Beauseant echoes Julie from A Woman of Thirty with her tale of how she “endured the torture of a forced marriage of suitability.” Julie compares a loveless marriage to prostitution, and both Mme de Beauseant and Julie express the opinion that young girls are forced to make choices when they are too young to know what they want. In A Woman of Thirty, however, Julie’s father tried and failed to stop her from marrying a man he knew would make her unhappy. We don’t have that background information in The Deserted Woman. Balzac is generous to Gaston and chalks up his stubborn drive to wear down Mme de Beauseant’s defenses to the folly of youth, but youth passes …

Balzac argues that love between two people is something to be cherished and valued:

The pleasure of loving, like some rare flower, needs the most careful ingenuity of culture. Time alone, and two souls attuned each to each, can discover all its resources, and call into being all the tender and delicate delights for which we are steeped in a thousand superstitions, imagining them to be inherent in the heart that lavishes them upon us. It is this wonderful response on one nature to another, this religious belief, this certainty of finding peculiar or excessive happiness in the presence of one we love, that accounts in part for perdurable attachments and long-lived passion.

The Deserted Woman is a story of forbidden passion and the sacrifices we are willing to make for love, but it’s also an examination of human nature and motivation. While Balzac clearly has a lot to say about the choices facing women in the 19th century, he also brings in the issue of the pressures facing men. Gaston is the second son, but his elder brother is expected to die young and that places enormous pressure upon Gaston as the heir. If true love is a rare thing, how many people are willing to pay the price? Mme de Beauseant has proved that she’s sacrifice her reputation for love, but does Gaston have the staying power necessary to defy the rules of the society?

 

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Money: Emile Zola New Translation by Valerie Minogue

Regular readers of the blog know that it took me a few years to read my way through Zola’s phenomenal 20-volume Rougon-Macquart cycle. To anyone out there even remotely interested in Zola or 19th century French literature, I urge you to read these novels–some of them became the best novels I’ve ever read.

One of the issues I encountered when reading the novels of the Rougon-Macquart cycle was an issue of translation. While the better known novels had been recently translated, the lesser known novels had not. That left readers with the Vizetelly “bowdlerized” translations, and I’m not going to launch into Vizetelly bashing as the Vizetelly family attempted to bring Zola to the British reading public and were subsequently dragged into court on obscenity charges; they paid dearly for their efforts, and Henry Vizetelly was even sent to prison for his ‘crime.’ So when I approached the RM cycle I read new translations when they were available and Vizetelly when they were not.

MoneyI was, then, delighted to hear that Money was finally receiving a new translation, thanks to Oxford University Press and Valerie Minogue. This is the first new translation in over a hundred years, and the first unabridged translation in English. I’m not going to spend a great deal of time on the plot, but for those who haven’t read this fantastic, prescient novel here’s a little background:  Money is the 18th novel in the cycle, and its main character is a financial speculator, Saccard. Saccard was also in The Kill, and in The Kill (the second novel in the series) Saccard was a married man and on his way to a meteoric rise in Parisian society. In Money, Saccard is widowed, and the novel opens with him a bankrupt, more or less a pariah, thanks to his wild speculations. In the book’s opening scenes, he has arranged to meet someone to discuss his future. Saccard, ever the optimist at all the wrong moments, expects his brother, a powerful political figure, Eugène Rougon (the main character in the sixth novel in the series, His Excellency, Eugène Rougon) to bail him out of his current situation. Rougon, who knows that Saccard is a dangerous loose cannon,  will help, but only if Saccard agrees to go abroad. That’s the deal. Saccard refuses the offer and remains in Paris; he can’t leave the Paris Stock Exchange, the Bourse. These initial scenes show Saccard’s relationship to the Bourse. He has an overwhelming obsession–addiction to making money through speculation, and he also desires to show other men of means that he will make a come-back. Here is a translation comparison for any potential readers out there:

For  a moment he stood quivering on the edge of the footway. It was that active hour when all the life of Paris seems to flow into that central square between the Rue Montmartre and the Rue Richelieu, those two teeming arteries that carry the crowd along. From the four crossways at the four corners of the Place, streams of vehicles poured in uninterruptedly, whisking across the pavement amid an eddying mob of foot passengers. The two rows of cabs at the stand, beside the railings, were continually breaking and reforming; while along the Rue Vivienne the Victorias of the remisiers stretched away in a compact line, above which towered the drivers, reins in hand and ready to whip up at the first signal. The steps and peristyle of the Bourse were quite black with swarming frock-coats; and from among the coulissiers, already installed under the clock and hard at work, there rose the clamour of bull and bear, the flood-tide roar of speculation dominating all the rumbling hubbub of the city. Passers-by turned their heads, curious and fearful as to what might be going on there–all those mysterious financial operations which few French brains can penetrate, all that sudden ruin and fortune brought about–how, none could understand–amid gesticulation and savage cries. And Saccard, standing on the kerb of the footway, deafened by the distant voices, elbowed by the jostling crowd, dreamed once more of becoming the Gold King, the sovereign of that fever-infested district, in the centre of which the Bourse, from one till three o’clock, beats as it were some like some enormous heart. (Vizetelly)

Now the new Valerie Minogue translation:

For a moment he stood tremulously on the edge of the pavement. It was the busy time when all the life of Paris seems to pour into this central square between the Rue Montmartre and the Rue Richelieu, the two congested arteries carrying the crowds.  From each of the four junctions at the four corners of the square flowed a constant, uninterrupted stream of vehicles, waving their way along the road through the bustling mass of pedestrians. The two lines of cabs at the cab-stand along the railings kept breaking up and the re-forming; whilst on the Rue Vivienne the dealers’ victorias stretched out in a close-packed line, with the coachmen on top, reins in hand, ready to whip the horses forward at the first command. The steps and the peristyle of the Bourse were overrun with swarming black overcoats; and from the kerb market, already set up and at work beneath the clock, came the clamour of buying and selling, the tidal surge of speculation, rising above the noisy rumble of the city. Passers-by turned their heads, impelled by both desire and fear of what was going on there, in that mysterious world of financial dealings into which the French brains but rarely penetrate, a world of ruin and bankruptcy and sudden inexplicable fortunes, in the midst of all that barbaric shouting and gesticulation. And Saccard, on the edge of the stream, deafened by the distant voices and elbowed by the jostling bustle of the crowd, was dreaming once more of the royalty of Gold in this home of every feverish passion, with the Bourse at its centre, beating, from one o’clock until three, like an enormous heart.

Review copy

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A Woman of Thirty by Balzac

Balzac’s flawed novel, A Woman of Thirty, is essentially a character study of a woman named Julie who makes incorrect choices, ruins her life and the consequences of those choices to her children. The plot starts off very well but then loses its focus, finally wandering into dodgy soap territory laced with coincidence. The story title implies that we will see Julie as a woman of thirty, and it’s true, we do see Julie as an unhappy thirty-year-old, but the story spans over thirty years and continues until 1844 when Julie is about 50. Balzac draws a portrait of a miserable marriage–a marriage of unequal sensibilities. Julie is an intelligent, sensitive woman paired with a man of mediocre talents which are masked by his rank and wealth. The observations Balzac makes on this subject were worth a post of their own, and while A Woman of Thirty is flawed, it has moments of sheer Balzac brilliance.

The story opens in 1813, April, on “a morning which gave promise of one those bright days when Parisians, for the first time in the year, behold dry pavement underfoot and a cloudless sky overhead.” This perfect weather is a glorious backdrop for the spectacle about to take place at the Tuileries–a “magnificent review” of Napoleon’s forces just before he sets out on  “upon the disastrous campaign” which ended in Napoleon’s defeat. Balzac specifically tells us which battles will be won and which battles will be lost, but all this is in the future as crowds, pumped up with patriotism, gather to watch the colourful “military manoeuvres.”

In the crowd is a beautiful young girl named Julie who’s excitedly dragging her father along to watch the spectacle. It’s clear that she’s there to see someone very specific–Colonel Victor D’Aiglemont. Julie cannot hide her emotions, and her father, guessing that his daughter is in love, warns her not to marry D’Aiglemont. Julie argues, and her father predicts only misery if Julie insists on marrying this man:

Girls are apt to imagine noble and enchanting and totally imaginary figures in their own minds; they have fanciful extravagant ideas about men, and sentiment, and life; and then they innocently endow somebody or other with all the perfections of their day-dreams and put their trust in him. They fall in love with this imaginary creature in the man of their choice; and then, when it is too late to escape from their fate, behold their first idol, the illusion made fair with their fancies, turns to an odious skeleton. Julie, I would rather you fall in love with an old man than with the colonel. Ah! If you could but see things from the standpoint of ten years hence, you would admit that my old experience was right. I know what Victor is, that gaiety of his is simply animal spirits–the gaiety of the barracks. He has no ability, and he is a spendthrift. He is one of those men whom Heaven created to eat and digest four meals a day, to sleep, to fall in love with the first woman that comes to hand, and to fight. He does not understand life. His kind heart, for he has a kind heart, will perhaps lead him to give his purse to a sufferer or a comrade; but he is careless, he has not the delicacy of heart which makes us slaves to a woman’s happiness, he is ignorant, he is selfish. There are plenty of buts–

After this initial scene, each of the subsequent periodic glimpses into Julie’s life reveal the consequences of the choices she made in the previous section. The opening sequence shows Napoleon’s armies gathering, the final glories of the Napoleonic Empire just as it’s about to fall. Interestingly, Balzac parallels this by placing Julie on the brink of her life–about to make a disastrous choice in falling for Victor. Fast forward a year. Julie’s father is dead, Julie is married to Victor, and she’s already thoroughly miserable….

The marriage between Victor and Julie stumbles along; she’s bitterly unhappy and grows pale and ill, and he, complaining to his friends about his delicate wife, consoles himself with other women.

One of the interesting aspects of the story is Balzac’s frank approach to marital sex. At one point Julie, left by Victor with an elderly aunt, writes a letter to a friend warning her of the miseries of marriage, and the old Marquise reads the letter. In the letter Julie warns her friend, Louisa, that after “a few days of marriage, [and] you will be what I am already–ugly, wretched, and old.” A major complaint is sex with an oblique reference to “the last outburst of delicious merriment” right before Victor gets into the marital bed for the first time. After reading Julie’s letter to Louisa, Victor’s aunt, the worldly, elderly Marquise tells Julie:

“If a dish at table is not to our taste, there is no occasion to disgust others, with it, child.”

The Marquise grasps that when it comes to sex with Victor, Julie finds “it impossible to share his pleasures.” At one point, after winning back Victor’s attentions, Julie manages to convince him that sex is no longer part of their relationship. Victor and Julie grow apart; he has affairs and he tells his friends that they would act as he does is they “had a pretty wife so fragile that for the past two years you might not so much as kiss her hand for fear of damaging her.”  We hear Victor’s side of the matter in a speech with an interesting analogy as he confides to a friend:

Do not you encumber yourself with one of those fragile ornaments, only fit to put in a glass case, so brittle and so costly that you are always obliged to be careful of them. They tell me that you are afraid of snow or wet for that fine horse of yours; how often do you ride him? That is just my own case. It is true that my wife gives me no ground for jealousy, but my marriage is purely ornamental business; if you think that I am a married man, you are grossly mistaken. So there is some excuse for my unfaithfulness.

A Woman of Thirty is a study in character. We know that Victor is weak and not particularly intelligent. There’s no substance underneath that flashy uniform. At first it’s fairly easy to blame all of Julie’s woes on her husband-after all she was warned about Victor by her father. But then Balzac raises the fascinating issue of sexual incompatibility. There’s a hint that Victor’s just a tad too brutish for Julie. Julie and Victor’s incompatibility is underscored by her love for two other men; in the case of one man, this is not the sort of love that includes passion and sex. It’s agape love–self-sacrifice, devotion and worship. Julie’s passion for the second man brings dire consequences to her family. Some female characters in Balzac pour all their passion into religion, but that’s an option that fails for Julie. She tries to find consolation in religion but cannot.

Balzac’s novel isn’t a general statement against marriage (Julie’s friend Louisa does marry in spite of her friend’s advice and is very happy), but it is a cautionary tale about the misery of marriage between two people of varying sensibilities. Julie possibly could have been happy if she’d married a different sort of man. Interestingly Victor seems to grow a little better with age while Julie’s disappointments warp her relationship with her daughter and lead to tragedy.

The plot goes on for far too long and the woman of thirty becomes a bitterly, unhappy woman of fifty who struggles with lifelong disappointments and depression. The plot turns soapy at the end with an implausible coincidence involving pirates.

The idea behind the novel is excellent–Balzac creates a series of snapshots of a woman’s unhappy life, and due to the timing of those snapshots the reader sees the direct cause and effect connection. Balzac’s attack on unhappy marriage and sexual incompatibility must have caused tongues to wag in the salons of Paris. Julie complains that her husband “seeks me too often,” and Balzac poses the question that perhaps Julie’s “abhorrence of passion,” is a result of her “girlish first love” latching on to the first object of her adoration before she knew “the forbidden but frenzied bliss for which some women will renounce all the laws of prudence and the principles of conduct upon which society is based.” Of course, Julie does get to taste that “forbidden but frenzied bliss” only to pay for those moments of madness dearly later.

There are many marvelous passages here even though the plot falls off the deep end by the book’s conclusion, and here’s Julie speaking her mind to a Curé on the subject of marriage–specifically a loveless marriage in which she compares sex between husband and wife to sex between a prostitute and her customers:

You pour scorn on the miserable creatures who sell themselves for a few coins to any passer-by, though want and hunger absolve the brief union; while another union, horrible for quite other reasons, is tolerated, nay encouraged, by society, and a young and innocent girl is married to a man whom she has only met occasionally during the previous three months. She is sold for her whole lifetime. It is true that the price is high! If you allow her no compensation for her sorrows, you might at least respect her, but no, the most virtuous of women cannot escape calumny. This is our fate in its double aspect. Open prostitution and shame; secret prostitution and unhappiness. As for the poor, portionless girls, they may die or go mad, without a soul to pity them. Beauty and virtue are marketable in the bazaar where souls and bodies are bought and sold–in the den of selfishness which you call society.

It’s a wonderful speech, and through Julie’s voice we can hear Balzac loud and clear. But in this impassioned speech Julie seems to forget that her marriage to Victor was not arranged–in fact she insisted upon it against her father’s wishes. She seems to be absolving herself of any personal responsibility now that she faces a life sentences for a decision she made as an inexperienced young girl. In spite of the book’s flaws (it should have ended with Julie at thirty), it’s interesting for its revolutionary view of the misery of married life and its frank approach to married sex.

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Balzac on Marriage and Power

Balzac’s A Woman of Thirty is the story of an unhappy marriage. Julie, a young girl marries a flashy young military aristocrat and while her father knows he’s poor marriage-material, Julie can’t see past the glitter.  Here’s a superb quote on the subject of mediocrity and power:

How many men are there whose utter incapacity is a secret kept from most of their acquaintances. For such as these high rank, high office, illustrious birth, a certain veneer of politeness, and considerable reserve of manner, or the prestige of great fortunes, are but so many sentinels to turn back critics who would penetrate to the presence of the real man. Such men are like kings, in that their real figure, character, and life can never be known nor justly appreciated, because they are always seen from too near or too far. Factitious merit has a way of asking questions and saying little; and understands the art of putting others forward to save the necessity of posing before them; then with a happy knack of its own, it draws and attaches others by the thread of the ruling passion of self-interest, keeping men of far greater abilities to play like puppets, and despising those whom it has brought down to its own level. The petty fixed idea naturally prevails; it has the advantage of persistence over the plasticity of great thoughts.

But there’s more. Balzac asks what happens when the woman realizes that she’s married to a loser. Well she can deal with it and/or take a lover–that’s one option. But there’s also Catherine the Great’s Nuclear option:

Bethink yourself now of the part to be played by a clever woman quick to think and feel, mated with a husband of this kind, and can you not see a vision of lives full of sorrow and self-sacrifice? Nothing upon the earth can repay such hearts so full of love and tender tact. Put a strong-willed woman in this wretched situation, and she will force a way out of it for herself by a crime, Like Catherine II., whom men nevertheless style “The Great.” But these woman are not all seated upon thrones, they are for the most part doomed to domestic unhappiness none the less terrible because obscure.

The Scarlet Empress

scarlet empress

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The Message by Balzac

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m reading my way through Balzac, and I returned to him, desperate for something good after a particularly toxic read. The Message happened to be the next one on the kindle, and it’s a wonderful short story that has everything: death, grief, love, and a few bittersweet life lessons.

The narrator begins his story announcing that his intention is to “drive” young lovers “to take refuge in the other’s heart.” So this is a cautionary, seize-the-day tale, with a narrator who plays a crucial part in a drama that is not his own. In his youth, back in the year 1819, the narrator was traveling from Paris to Moulins via stagecoach:

The state of my finances obliged me to take an outside place. Englishmen, as you know, regard those airy perches on the top of the coach as the best seats; and for the first few miles I discovered abundance of excellent reasons for justifying the opinion of our neighbours. A young fellow, apparently in somewhat better circumstances, who came to take the seat beside me from preference, listened to my reasoning with inoffensive smiles. An approximate nearness of age, a similarity in ways of thinking, a common love of fresh air, and of the rich landscape scenery through which the coach was lumbering along–these things, together with an indescribable magnetic something, drew us before long into one of those short-lived traveller’s intimacies in which we unbend with more complacency because the intercourse is by its very nature transient, and makes no implicit demands upon the future.

The topic of conversation turns to women, and the young men’s’ “ladyloves.”

Young as we both were, we still admired “the woman of a certain age,” that is to say, the woman between thirty-five and forty.

Once that admission has met the air, the confidences fly fast and furious, and the young men admit to each other that each loves a married countess. Then tragedy strikes….

The narrator holds back his personal details. We don’t know why he has little money, but he’s content to take the back seat in telling this story of other lives, another love, in which he became involved by sheer circumstance. A chance meeting with a young man of a similar age becomes a moment of maturity as tragic events place the narrator, duty bound, in a situation in which he’s an outsider and yet privy to the deepest secrets.

This is a story recalled many years later. The narrator admits that “for once, and perhaps for the only time in my life, I used tact.” That tact carries the day, and the narrator observes “undisguised human nature under two very different aspects” as he sees a marriage and its two partners who satisfy their hunger in their own ways.

The story is simple (not a great deal happens) but it’s brilliantly conceived and executed, and the narrator’s position as an observer and bearer of bad news allows him to see the innermost secrets of a married couple who manage their marriage fairly successfully–even if it’s not particularly happy. We only get a glimpse of the Comtesse de Montpersan–I wish we saw more, for she’s a great Balzac heroine with a strength and intensity that reminds me of the Countess Ferraud in Colonel Chabert.

Translated by Ellen Marriage

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The Purse: Balzac

Stuck in an overbooked doctor’s office, yet armed with a kindle, it seemed the perfect time to read a Balzac story. This time it’s The Purse (La Bourse), the story of Hippolyte  Schinner, a young man, an artist, who’s poised on the brink of success. There’s a back story here as Hippolyte is an illegitimate child, and although he’s much-loved by his mother, he knows what it means to be an outsider in society. One day, inside his rented rooms, Hippolyte is standing on a ladder when he falls to the floor and is knocked unconscious. When he comes to, he’s being attended by two women, neighbours who heard the commotion–one, of course, is very young and beautiful, and the other is much older.

Gratitude and curiosity fan Hippolyte’s interest. To compound his curiosity, he’s only just moved into the building and knows nothing about his neighbours.

The house belonged to one of those proprietors in whom there is a foregone and profound horror of repairs and decoration, one of the men who regard their position as Paris house-owners as a business. In the vast chain of moral species, these people hold a middle place between the miser and the usurer.

He decided to visit the two women and notices some peculiarities about Mademoiselle Adelaide Leseigneur and her mother. They are obviously very poor:

the chairs showed some remains of former splendor; they were of carved mahogany, but the red morocco seats, the gilt nails and reeded backs showed as many scars as an old sergeant of the Imperial Guard.

This room did duty as a museum of certain objects, such as are never seen but in this kind of amphibious household; nameless objects with the stamp at once of luxury and penury. Among other curiosities, Hippolyte noticed a splendidly finished telescope, hanging over the small discolored glass that decorated the chimney. To harmonize with this strange collection of furniture, there was, between the chimney and the partition, a wretched sideboard of painted wood, pretending to be mahogany, of all woods the most impossible to imitate. But the slippery red quarries, the shabby little rugs in front of the chairs, and all the furniture, shone with the hard rubbing cleanliness which lends a treacherous lustre to old things by making their defects, their age, and their long service still more conspicuous.

Balzac tells us that Hippolyte has yet to make the acquaintance of evil or duplicitous people. He chews over what he sees in the rooms belonging to the two women and tries to make sense of it all. He’s particularly perturbed by the card table that’s permanently set up in the corner, and the nightly visits from a couple of men who steadily lose at cards. To Hippolyte, things just don’t add up. Is the older woman fleecing her visitors? Is she pimping the young girl?

The old lady’s face was like the room she inhabited; it seemed as difficult to detect whether this squalor covered vice or the highest virtue, as to decide whether Adelaide’s mother was an old coquette accustomed to weigh, to calculate, to sell everything. or a loving woman, full of noble feeling and amiable qualities.

Then something happens  …

While this isn’t an amazing story, it’s a good one–good for its descriptions of the rooms in which we see former grandeur blended uneasily with extreme poverty. But the story is also of interest as it marks a seminal time in this young man’s life. Hippolyte appears throughout La Comédie Humaine, and here he is young, and innocent. He’s never been confronted by truly ugly human behaviour, but he’s not naïve enough to imagine it doesn’t exist. Balzac captures the universality of the moment at which we all observe something odd and try to make sense of it–are we seeing evil at play for the first time, or are we seeing some human behaviour that we’ve never observed before–something that we need to add to our catalogue of experience?

for we try to postpone as long as possible our belief in evil, and it seems to come too soon.

Translated by Clara Bell

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