Tag Archives: 19th century French literature

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


Filed under Fiction, Gautier Thèophile

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


Filed under Fiction, Sue Eugène

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.


Filed under Balzac, Fiction

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


Filed under Balzac, Fiction

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.


Filed under Fiction, Huysmans, Joris-Karl

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



Filed under Fiction, Maupassant, Guy de

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


Filed under Fiction, Maupassant, Guy de

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?



Filed under Balzac, Fiction