Tag Archives: French literature

Betrayal by the Marquis de Sade

“O sovereign Providence, why are men’s means so limited that the only way they can ever contrive to do good is by doing a little evil!”

I went through a Marquis de Sade period years ago, but when I came across Betrayal, a title I hadn’t read and published by Hesperus Press, I couldn’t resist. After all the Marquis is everyone’s favourite pervie, and Hesperus puts together some excellent little editions. Betrayal actually contains 2 stories: The Magistrate Mocked (which clocks in at 74 pages) and Emilie de Tourville or Brotherly Cruelty which is 27 pages long. Of the two I prefer the latter. If I wanted to be nasty, I’d say I prefer Emilie de Tourville because it’s shorter, but that wouldn’t be strictly true. The style is much better, but more of that later.

The Magistrate Mocked has some of the elements of a farce, except in typical de Sade fashion, the author doesn’t understand limits, mocking (as the title suggests) ad nauseum, one of his main characters. It’s true that we don’t have much sympathy for the elderly, repugnant M. de Fontanis, “the president of the Parlement of Aix,” but de Sade’s jokes at the expense of this character become old. When the story begins an elderly Baron arranges the marriage, against her will, of his youngest daughter to the repulsive, sepulchral Fontanis:

Not many people can imagine a president of the Parlement of Aix–it is a species of beast of which people have often spoken without knowing it well: strict and unbending by profession,  and pernickety, credulous, stubborn, vain, cowardly, garrulous and stupid by character; with a beaky little face, rolling his ‘r’s like a Punchinello, commonly as thin as a rake, lanky and skinny and stinking like a corpse…It seems that all the spleen and haughtiness of all the magistrates in the kingdom has taken refuge in this temple of the Themis of Provence, to gush out as and when needed, each time that a French court has remonstrances to bring or citizens to hang. But M. de Fontanis was even worse than this rapid sketch of his compatriots would suggest. Over the gaunt, and indeed somewhat bent figure that we have just depicted, M. de Fontanis displayed a narrow occiput, not very low and rising to a distinct eminence, adorned by a yellow forehead magisterially covered by a multi-layered wig, of a kind that had never been seen in Paris; two rather bandy legs supported, with some magnificence, this walking church-tower, from whose chest–not without some inconvenience for those nearby–there issued the exhalations of a yelping voice that poured forth, with a certain pomposity, long compliments, half-French and half-Provencal, at which he never failed to smile himself, his mouth gaping so wide that it was possible to see as far as the uvula that dangled over a blackish chasm, entirely toothless.

De Sade goes on to compare the mouth of de Fontanis to a toilet. A tasty prospect indeed for the Baron’s youngest daughter who happens to be in love with the young, handsome, Count d’Elbène, and to complicate matters, Mlle de Téroze has lost her virginity to the Count. For a moment, I expected Mlle de Téroze to flee with her lover, but de Sade has some torturous misadventures in mind for de Fontanis. 

De Fontanis marries his bride and they honeymoon at the home of the bride’s sister and brother-in-law, the Marquis and the Marquise d’Olincourt. It then becomes the goal of the bride, her sister and brother-in-law, and, naturally, the lover, to ensure that the consummation of the marriage does not take place. This involves a number of horrible things happening to de Fontanis and of course, there’s the  inevitable, classic de Sade scatology with an episode of uncontrollable diarrhoea along with another episode of de Fontanis falling into a cesspool.

The second story Emilie de Tourville or Brotherly Cruelty concerns a middle-aged Count who discovers a near-dead woman in the middle of the road. He takes her home and as she slowly recovers, she tells him her story of woe: seduction, betrayal & abandonment, debauchery, and imprisonment. It’s a tragic tale along the lines of a dummied-down Clarissa, but de Sade isn’t interested in developing character and he has to push the boundaries by dragging in coincidence. This story, however, is devoid of the occasional floweriness and annoying lofty nonsense that appears in The Magistrate Mocked.

Hesperus Press elevates these stories by combining them with a marvellous introduction by translator Andrew Brown, and that’s what makes this edition so worthwhile. This introduction places the stories within the context of de Sade’s life, and Brown points out that at one point, de Sade and his handy man-servant Latour were accused of trying to poison 4 prostitutes in Marseilles. The poison was in fact sweets laced with aphrodisiac, and 2 of the prostitutes accused de Sade of sodomy and attempted poisoning. The parlement of Aix-en-Provence passed sentence of death on both Latour and de Sade. They escaped, but effigies were symbolically ‘executed’ in their place. Andrew Brown notes that these charges were later dropped. The important element here, however, is that this explains de Sade’s spleen against the legal profession, and like many writers, he executes in fiction what he could not commit in life.

The Magistrate Mocked is also valuable for the way in which de Sade, after having fictionally tortured de Fontanis with humiliation after humiliation, lays out some of his philosophy of crime and punishment through the mouths of his characters. One of de Sade’s beefs, apparently, was that prostitutes could make accusations against an aristocrat, and what’s more they could even find a sympathetic ear.

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The Physiology of Marriage by Balzac

“A man ought not to marry without having studied anatomy, and dissected at least one woman.”

Although I’m a Balzac fan, I’m going to admit that I didn’t find The Physiology of Marriage an easy read, but that said, it’s an important and interesting book. It shows a young Balzac in embryo–still in the process of becoming the great writer who created Cousin Bette and The Black Sheep. The book also shows Balzac’s fascination with human behaviour–particularly the behaviour of women–even as he plays with and organises some of his major themes and ideas.

The Physiology of Marriage, published in 1829, is not a novel. Instead it’s a hodge podge of lectures, aphorisms, stories and observations on the institution and power dynamics of marriage. The basic theme is that marriage is not “an institution of Nature” but is an arrangement fraught with difficulties. There were times when Balzac seemed to lurch into Masters and Johnson territory–especially when he started working the numbers and calculating just how many French wives commit adultery. At the end of the book, a Duchess rather appropriately calls Balzac a “doctor of conjugal arts and sciences.” If he earns this title, it should certainly accompany the disclaimer that Balzac’s science is the science  of observation.

Balzac seems to explore every possible category under the heading of marriage. Here’s Balzac on women and headaches:

Now headache is an affection which affords infinite resources to a woman. This malady, which is the easiest of all to feign, for it is destitute of any apparent symptom, merely obliges her to say: “I have a headache.” A woman trifles with you and there is no one in the world who can contradict her skull, whose impenetrable bones defy touch or ocular test. Moreover, the headache is, in our opinion, the queen of maladies, the pleasantest and the most terrible weapon employed by wives against husbands. There are some coarse and violent men who have been taught the tricks of women by their mistresses, in the happy hours of their celibacy, and so flatter themselves that they are never to be caught by this vulgar trap. But all their efforts, all their arguments end by being vanquished before the magic of these words: “I have a headache.” If a husband complains , or ventures on a reproach, if he tries to resist the power of this Il buondo cani of marriage, he is lost.

And there’s more. Balzac paints a scenario of a young  woman “lying voluptuously on a divan” while her husband paces around the room. Although the word ‘sex’ does not appear, Balzac’s inclusion of the word “voluptuously” sneaks in the idea that sex (a lack thereof and the subsequent frustrations felt by the husband) is at the root of the headache problem. What’s more, Balzac accuses the medical profession of being in cahoots with the headache sufferers. Freud would call this hysterical illness no doubt. The passages on the problems of headaches within marriage reminded me of a professor who peppered his lectures on Victorian literature with salacious slices of information about his married life. He too held forth on the subject of headaches. The professor advised all men to keep a bottle of aspirin on hand, and then, when a wife complained of a headache at bedtime, the husband could toss her the bottle and tell her to swallow a couple before proceeding on with the business at hand.

Ah, the delicacy of marital politics….

Balzac arrives at the somewhat obvious conclusion (obvious these days, that is) that most marriages are unhappy, and that adultery is the natural result. Here he is discussing what percentage of the married female population commit adultery:

Adultery does not establish itself in the heart of a married woman with the promptness of a pistol-shot. Even when sympathy with another rouses feelings on first sight, a struggle always takes place, whose duration discounts the total sum of conjugal infidelities. It would be an insult to French modesty not to admit the duration of this struggle in a country so naturally combative, without referring to at least a twentieth in the total of married women: but then we will suppose that there are certain sickly women who preserve their lovers while they are using soothing draughts, and that there are certain wives whose confinement makes sarcastic celibates smile. In this way we shall vindicate the modesty of those who enter upon the struggle from motives of virtue. For the same reason we should not venture to believe that a woman forsaken by her lover will find a new one on the spot; but this discount being much more uncertain than the preceding one, we will estimate it at one-fortieth.

Balzac is saying that women don’t intend to commit adultery, but that it happens after a period of inner struggle and with cause (spousal mistreatment which is also discussed). After crunching the numbers, he lands on the figure that approx. 800,000 French women commit adultery. Dostoevsky would not agree with Balzac’s idea that women don’t have serial lovers. In The Eternal Husband, Natalya Vasilyevna cuckolds both a husband and a lover when a new man arrives on the scene. Natalya has to get rid of her old, boring lover, Velchaninov, in order to conduct an affair with a newcomer.

In Prometheus: The Life of Balzac, author Andre Maurois states that Balzac, a bachelor at the time the book was written, was privy to the confidences of many women, including the Duchesse d’Abrantès, Fortunée Hamelin, and Sophie Gay. Maurois argues that Balzac sees marriage as “a civil war requiring weapons and strategy in which victory (meaning personal liberty) goes to the better general,” and he further argues that Balzac is on the side of the wife. While I think Balzac was a remarkably enlightened man for his time, from a 21st century perspective, I don’t agree that The Physiology of Marriage places Balzac wholeheartedly on the side of the wife. The book was extremely popular with women at the time of its publication and no doubt it seemed revolutionary then. There are certainly many pro-wife statements but the book could well amount to a handbook of strategy for husbands. The Maurois bio, by the way, was written in 1965, and societal attitudes towards women have undergone a sizeable shift.

Given how the bikini-clad Helen Mirren has suddenly become a sex object at the age of 66, I’d say that this is no longer true:

The average age at which women are married is twenty years and at forty they cease to belong to the world of love.

But, according to Balzac, men enjoy a longer shelf life, and here’s a powerful observation:

On the other hand, a man at fifty-two is more formidable than at any other age. It is at this fair epoch of life that he enjoys an experience dearly bought, and probably all the fortune that he will ever acquire. The passions by which his course is directed being the last under whose scourge he will move, he is unpitying and determined, like the man carried away by the current who snatches at a green and pliant branch of willow, the young nursling of the year.

Can’t argue with that….

The Physiology of Marriage is available FREE for the Kindle, on the internet and at Project Gutenberg.

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Witches’ Sabbath by Maurice Sachs

“If the reader grants with me that the whole of our life is nothing more than an attempt to fulfill the dreams of our youth, he will understand that it is possible to search throughout the whole of one’s life for a happiness one has enjoyed as a child.” 

I came across the name Maurice Sachs (Maurice Ettinghausen) while reading a review at Book Around the Corner. Sachs sounded like an intriguing character–one of those almost people. Never really the first rank of anything but always hanging on the fringes of the Paris literati. He was born to a Jewish family in 1906. He later converted to Catholicism, and led a rather colourful bohemian life which included a fair amount of scandal and financial skullduggery. During the German Occupation of France, he was part of the forced enlistment of the STO: Service du Travail Obligatoire (Compulsory Work Service). This was conducted under the Vichy government with the result that hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen were shipped to Germany as a labour force.   

There is very little information about Sachs in English on the internet, and some of it is false. According to articles I read, once Sachs was part of the STO he was employed by the Gestapo as a paid informer.  Apparently he ratted people out to the Gestapo but ended up in Fuhlsbuttel prison/concentration camp after refusing to denounce a Jesuit priest. Other articles said that the Gestapo were fed up with Sachs’s false reports. Considering the degree of vilification, it’s all rather vague. The stories of Sachs’ s death are as muddied as some aspects of his life. One version has him lynched by other prisoners he’d informed against, and that after his death he was fed to the dogs, but that version has been debunked. Apparently, in 1945 he was shot while being marched by the SS as they retreated from Fuhlsbuttel; his body was left on the side of the road.

I was intrigued by all this information as it hooks into some of the questions I have about what really went on in France under the Nazi occupation. There are a number of figures whose actions remain murky–were they informers or collaborators or was this a cover for something else? I’ve never lived under an occupation, but this all reminds me of Simenon’s life under German occupation in WWI. Just what is legal and what is illegal shifts according to who makes the rules, and Simenon’s Three Crimes is a wonderful exploration of how some people exploited occupation for their own gains.

But back to Sachs. One of the reasons I read the memoir was because I hoped for clarification on Sachs’s role as an informer. Some sources state that Sachs “made money” by helping Jewish families escape. But then wasn’t it expensive to get the necessary documents? How much did he charge? What was the going rate? How many Jews did he assist to escape? Or did he just take the money and inform against them? There are probably no answers to these questions but at the same time I thought of Dr. Petiot, the mass murderer who in WWI German-occupied France also promised safe passage to S. America, but the Jews who paid his asking price ended up in an incinerator. Was Sachs simply a weak man who sold out his compatriots or did he play a dangerous double game by walking on both sides of the fence? In one sense Sachs doesn’t seem the hero type, but then again, if he played a double game, perhaps it’s difficult to tell just what was in his head. But I can’t erase the fact that he was forced labour for the Nazis, was then stuck in a prison for at least some failure of cooperation only to end up being shot in the head right before the war’s conclusion.

So I came to the memoir expecting some answers. In terms of my expectations I was disappointed. There’s virtually no clarification about exactly what Sachs was up to before his arrest. The book was finished in 1939 with a later (1942) 3 page postscript added. Perhaps if he’d survived he would have modified the memoirs. 

So what is the memoir? It’s a strange hodge-podge of gut-wrenching honesty in which Sachs lays bare his soul while admitting his many flaws and mistakes. But it’s also a study in avoidance. I don’t necessarily blame him for that avoidance; if I had to write a memoir, I’d gloss over some stuff I’d rather not think about or perhaps not even mention it at all. That’s the problem with memoirs. A memoir is a trade-off. We only get one-side, one version in which events may be cherry picked–whereas a well-researched bio will dig into the darkest secrets. Bottom line, I concluded I’d probably have been better off reading a biography of Sachs rather than his memoir.

The book’s strength is in its aphorisms. I could go through the book and select witty and wise sayings galore (along the lines of a minor Oscar Wilde):

Elegance, pleasure, etc., are ruinous tastes which one escapes only by intense specialization or by mediocrity.

I regard myself as a bad example capable of giving good advice.

Theft is as irresistible as physical desire can be on certain nights.

Maurice Sachs’s parents divorced when he was a young child, and this caused some financial hardships. Sachs’s mother sounds feckless and was not much of a money manager, but then again it sounds as though she acted in adulthood exactly as she’d been raised (spend and don’t worry about bills). When Sachs was a teenager, his mother, heavily in debt and facing arrest for writing a rubber cheque for 60,000 francs, swallowed poison (reminds me of Madame Bovary). The poison swallowed was an “insufficient dose” for death; she recovered and Sachs sold his mother’s last piece of jewelry in order to get her out of France before she was arrested. It was, he says:

“The best thing I’ve ever done in my life up to that point, the only human and valuable gesture of my whole existence.”

Yet he was castigated by the rest of the family who “would have prefered” Sachs to take the side of “economic morality.” Sachs adds the details that the cheque was written to “one of the richest men in France,” and that if anything he was the one most wounded by his mother’s fecklessness since he was bankrupted and lost, through his mother’s mismanagement, 700,000 francs “she legally administered.” The incident with Sachs’s mother involving the rubber cheque sets the stage for Sachs’s later attitude towards financial responsibility& debts.  

He recalls being “penniless in the middle of a rich family.” He admits stealing “two sous” as a child from the bag of wealthy visiting relatives in order to buy a tart, but repeat thefts illuminated that the thrill came from  “the anguished delight of the theft” and not the anticipated “craving for an almond tart.” Perhaps being surrounded by those who lacked nothing gave him a taste for luxury while he lacked the necessary means and drive to achieve this lifestyle. Sachs recalls wishing that he had been born a girl, and from this he draws the conclusion that he was predisposed to homosexuality. Sachs, however, did have a few brief adult liaisons with women but found them unfulfilling when compared to his homosexual relationships. Sachs details his childhood, his adolescence, his giddy youth, time in a seminary and his military service, yet he remains deliberately vague when it comes to his relations with some of the great names of the day. When finally unleashed in the salons of Paris and as a frequenter of Le-Boeuf-sur-le-Toit,  Sachs’s charm and fine connections explain why the doors of Paris salons opened to him. Repeatedly.

At times he is mercilessly honest about his character flaws. At one point, he’s barely eating, selling books, when he’s yanked out of poverty and given a job as a secretary which includes room and board. Sachs admits he misused the opportunity, getting into debt and not caring much about his employment. At another point in his varied career, he started a publishing business with Jacques Bonjean. He missed a great opportunity when he failed to publish All Quiet on The Western Front–a book he’d received from Count Kessler via Misia Sert. In typical Sachs style, he admits that the book sat on his desk for four months “during which I had neither the curiosity of the presence of mind to have it read by someone who knew German.”  Later, Sachs gets a job as Chanel’s secretary and claims there was a “misunderstanding.” Other sources state that he stole from her.

There are times when Sachs writes with deep regret and a sense of shame:

The Maurice Sachs who has left irritating memories in the minds of some (and some good impressions in the minds of others, and a mixture of the two elsewhere), the shady, evasive, scheming drunken, prodigal, chaotic curious, affectionate, generous, and impassioned Maurice Sachs  who has always taken shape somewhat in spite of myself, but with my complicity, and who has produced this occasionally repugnant, often attractive personality to which I give so much importance because it is, after all, myself, that Maurice Sachs whom I have since mistreated, humiliated, deprived, then encouraged to do better, whose worse defects I have tried to canalize, whose defects I have tried to develop, this man whose human dignity, along with its attendant virtues, I have never despaired of (since he mattered more to me than anyone else), this man doesn’t bear my true name, but whose circumstances I can no longer change to give him my own because we have come too far together, this Maurice Sachs whose hand along with mine I hope is writing here the confession that closes a cycle of our lives….

While parts of the memoir assume a confessional tone, Sachs is clearly seeking understanding from the reader.

Nothing is this book will be comprehensible if the reader does not admit a constant duality in being, more punctilious, more complicated in its workings than the opposition, in each of us, of good and evil, a doubleness of each of the soul’s impulses:

There’s a self-loathing here that lingers beneath Sachs’s words. He recognised the duality of his nature but seemed unable to control the characteristics that dragged him down, but merged with that self-loathing is no small degree of self-delusion. We see opportunities handed to Sachs squandered, but still he continues on a roller-coaster ride of fortune.

I’ll admit that as an Anglo reader, I missed some aspects of the book. References to René Blum, Jean Couteau, Gide, and Max Jacob had me turning to the internet and some phrases were not translated. Now after reading the book, I have the impression that I saw but a glimpse of Sachs, and this glimpse is distorted–slightly out-of focus.

Book Around the Corner and I decided to read Witches Sabbath and post our reviews at the same time. This is an exercise in alternate reactions to the same material, so check out her response for another opinion

Translated by Richard Howard

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The Chouans by Balzac

In 2010, I finally finished Zola’s twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series, and it was time to move on to something else. Balzac seemed a good choice. I’ve read several novels–no firm count & with no particular plan in mind, but I’ve throughly enjoyed every Balzac novel I’ve read. So on to the task of reading La Comédie Humaine and Balzac’s novel, The Chouans, which appeared in 1829. Apparently, Balzac wrote and published other novels prior to The Chouans, but this was the first novel he actually put his name to. Reminds me of the amazing literary career of Simenon–another writer who, when he hit his stride, started his claim to fame by using his own name.

Balzac was thirty-years-old when The Chouans was published, and he had not yet formulated La Comédie Humaine. Within a few years, however, Balzac began organising his novels into categories:

Scenes of Private Life

Scenes of Provincial Life

Scenes of Parisian Life

Scenes of Political Life

Scenes From Military Life

Scenes of Country Life

Philosophical & Analytical Studies.

The Chouans slots into Scenes from Military Life. According to translator Marion Ayton Crawford, Balzac was very much influenced by the phenomenally successful novels of Walter Scott, and that explanation really goes a long way towards understanding the romance and historical high adventure aspects of  The Chouans. This is a classic tale of treachery and romance–the individual vs. the cause in which the love between two people is put to the test through competing moral values. The novel is set in 1799 in Fougères, Brittany. My copy’s introduction includes some historical background to the period and even a few maps: it’s post French revolution, but Royalists still remain loyal to the Bourbons:

A series of sporadic counter-Revolutionary movements had started in 1792 in the West, and spread from the Vendée to the borders of Brittany and Normandy. They were led at first by the dispossessed minor clergy who refused to swear the required oath of allegiance to the Revolutionary civil powers, and later by noblemen relying on the Count of Artois who had promised to land in the West himself to lead a Royalist army, and on support from England and the continent.

Fresh from Zola’s Second Empire, I initially found the setting of The Chouans a bit disorienting. I didn’t really know what was going on, and so I did some additional digging which is included here for any reader who feels as I did in the first couple of chapters. The Chouannerie (1794-1800), the  “series of sporadic counter-Revolutionary movements” mentioned in the earlier quote, was a Royalist uprising–guerilla warfare directed against the forces of Revolutionary France. In Brittany, in spite of, or perhaps because of, recent Royalist defeats (including the death of the Royalist leader Boishardy) sentiment is particularly strong. The Blue Chouans support the revolution, while the White Chouans support the Royalists.

The novel begins with Republican commander, Hulot, in Brittany’s Chouan country. He’s been rounding up conscripts and requisitioned men “still interchangeable terms” apparently. This was one of the Chouans’ major beefs against the French Empire, so it makes a great deal of sense that Balzac chose to open the novel with a scene of conscription. As the men march toward the boundary of Maine and Brittany, tension mounts and the men slow down, much to Hulot’s consternation:

Only the partisans of the Republic marched almost gaily. As for the others, they might wear a wide variety of dress but their expressions and attitudes had the uniformity misfortune imposes. Peasants or townsmen, profound melancholy marked them all. Their silence was fiercely sullen. Their spirits seemed weighed down by the same heavy thought, which though it was undoubtedly grim could only be guessed at, for their faces were quite impenetrable. Only the extraordinary slowness of their march might seem to give away some secret calculation. A few among them, distinguished by the rosary worn round their necks in spite of the risk involved in preserving this evidence of a religion which had been suppressed but by no means destroyed, from time to time shook back their locks and raised their heads cautiously. They then stealthily scanned the woods, paths and great rocks that closed in on the way, like a dog putting his nose to the wind trying to scent game; but hearing only the monotonous tramp of their silent companions, lowered their heads again and resumed their despairing expressions, like criminals being led to the hulks to live or die there as they might.

Hulot expects an ambush, and he’s correct. His contingent of men face the Chouans who mimic owls to communicate with one another: “from that [sound] had come the nickname Chuin, which means screech-owl or barn owl in the local patois.”  The Republican forces are attacked by the Chouans & the conscripts escape while they can.

But skullduggery and high adventure are afoot. Enter the beautiful Marie de Verneuil. She’s been sent specifically to the region to engage the Royalist leader, the Gars (the Marquis of Montauran)–known to have a weakness for women–in a romantic relationship, and then lead him into capture. The situation is complicated by the fact that the Marquis has a comrade-in-arms, the reptilian Madame de Gua, who’s bitterly jealous of Marie. Madame de Gua is posing as the mother of the Marquis, so this scenario allows for some bitchy confrontations between Madame de Gua and Marie. Then to top it off, Marie and the Marquis fall in love….

I’m going to admit that while I enjoyed most of The Chouans, it was too romantic for my tastes. I much prefer the nastiness of Cousin Bette or Pere Goriot for example. The Chouans, I’d say, is an adventure-romance, and while most of the book is extremely powerful, I wasn’t that hot on the romance. Readers probably either buy into the instantaneous romance between the Marquis and Marie or they don’t. I’m in the latter camp, and that created a problem in terms of enjoyment. Just a matter of personal taste, and lest I give the wrong impression, I should add that the characters are all well-drawn, however, and the dialogue crackles. Here’s Madame de Gua warning the Marquis:

Always the same! Women are the one danger you’ll meet your death through. A wax doll makes you forget everything.

Balzac and human nature. There’s nothing better.

The highlight of the novel (and my favourite part) came after a nocturnal journey to a ruined château. Marie, with her escort of “blue” Chouans, accepts the hospitality of the Marquis. Marie’s first sight of the château is filled with foreboding:

The north wind was blowing through these ruins, to which the moon’s hazy light lent the character and aspect of a vast skeletal spectre. One would have to have seen it in its colours of grey-blue granite and blackish-yellow schist to appreciate the fantastically eerie suggestion of this empty and dismal shell. its disintegrating stonework and glassless windows, the gaping crenellations of the tower and split roofs, made it look like skeleton bones, and the predatory birds that flew off screaming added one more touch to the nightmarish resemblance.

I was rather interested in exactly why the pockets of rebellion continued so persistently in Brittany. The people there seemed to have little respect for the edicts of Paris, and were loyal to the crown. I found it curious that Breton peasants cared one way or another who ran the country, and then there was something inexplicable about their insular culture…. I began to wonder just how big a role smuggling played in the lives of the Chouans. It seems that salt smuggling did play a role in the uprising. After the revolution, the Brittany salt industry was subject to centralised tax. So here’s Paris taxing the area’s industry, dragging off their men for ridiculous wars, and stripping the priests of their power. No wonder they’re pissed off.

Here’s Balzac with his usual love of detail describing some of his characters’ extraordinary clothes:

A number of townsmen were to be seen among these half-barbarous men, as if to mark civilization’s farthest boundaries in these regions. They wore round or cocked hats or peaked caps and top-boots or shoes held by gaiters, and their costume, like the peasants’, divided them into groups showing notable differences.

Finally a mention of a couple of the complete rotters in the novel: Abbé Gudin–a nasty defrocked priest who refused to take the oath of allegiance, and Corentin a “sinister individual” who is a prototype for Vautrin.

For a comprehensive summary of The Chouans, go to Balzacbooks.wordpress.com

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Doctor Pascal by Zola

Doctor Pascal is Zola’s final novel in the twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart cycle. Zola wrote the Rougon-Macquart series as a social history of France’s Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852 to 1870), and so history is told through the stories of various family members. The novels extend from the 1851 coup d’etat which overthrew the Republic  t0 1873 (the aftermath of the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War).

Doctor Pascal follows the phenomenal tale Debacle, and this final novel does not finish the series with a bang but a whimper. And some of the whimpering came from me. I’m not sure what I expected, but it was not easy to segue into the tediousness of Doctor Pascal after the splendour and the destruction of Debacle.

To place Doctor Pascal in the Rougon-Macquart family tree, he is a member of the third generation–the son of Pierre and Félicité Rougon, and the brother of Eugene Rougon and Aristide Saccard. Pascal appears in a minor capacity at various points in the series (The Fortune of the Rougons, The Kill, Abbe Mouret’s Transgression). When the novel begins the year is 1872 and Pascal lives in Plassans (where the series began) with his niece Clotilde (the daughter of  Saccard) and a servant, Martine. Pascal is a devoted and much-loved doctor in the town; at first he seems to be one of the more normal, rational family members until the nature of his research is revealed. Pascal, you see, is a big believer in heredity, and using his relatives as prime examples of his belief, he keeps a family tree along with substantial notes regarding the various family traits: madness, alcoholism, and obsessiveness. Pascal’s research into his family could, of course fall into the obsessive category, but it’s Pascal’s medical research that’s questionable. Ok, it is, after all the 19th C and medical treatments were archaic anyway, but even so…. Pascal, in the remote corner of Plassans, and feeding only on his own ideas, has developed a serum which he hopes will cure all hereditary illness:

About this time, the doctor, reading an old medical book of the fifteenth century, was greatly struck by a method of treating disease called signature. To cure a diseased organ, it was only necessary to take from a sheep or an ox the corresponding organ in sound condition, boil it, and give the soup to the patient to drink.

Doctor Pascal takes this one step further. In order to:

 regenerate those enfeebled by hereditary influences, he had only to give them the normal and healthy nerve substance. The method of the soup, however, seemed to him childish, and he invented in its stead that of grinding in a mortar the brain of a sheep, moistening it with distilled water, and then decanting and filtering the liquor thus obtained. He tried this liquor then mixed with Malaga wine, on his patients, without obtaining any appreciable result. Suddenly, as he was beginning to grow discouraged, he had an inspiration one day, when he was giving a lady suffering from hepatic colics an injection of morphine with the little syringe of Pravaz.

So things are looking up; Pascal adds Morphine to the mix and lo and behold, this formula appears to do the trick. Doctor Pascal doesn’t connect the formula’s success to the addition of morphine, and later in the novel, he becomes disillusioned with his research and starts injecting water in his patients instead. The book doesn’t use the word quack so I’m including it here.

Pascal believes in the power of science and is not religious. This puts him at odds with Clotilde and Martine who are both extremely religious. After Pascal’s mother discovers that her son has extensive notes on the shenanigans of Rougon-Macquart family, she begins to scheme for ways to get the evidence of past misdeeds destroyed, and to this end she ropes in Clotilde using religious beliefs to argue against science & against Pascal’s research. Here’s Félicité on Pascal’s years of research on his family:

A collection of falsehoods, of gossip, all the lies that our enemies, enraged by our triumph, hurled against us in former days!

I know Doctor Pascal has its fans–I’m just not one of them. I suppose part of my disappointment is that I hoped for something better for the last novel in the series. There’s a quote from Zola on the back of my copy:

Pascal’s works on the members of his family is, in small, what I have attempted to do on humanity, to show all so that all may be cured. It is not a book which, like La Debacle, will stir the passions of the mob. It is a scientific work, the logical deduction and conclusion of all my preceding novels, and at the same time it is my speech in defence of all that I have done before the court of public opinion.

Doctor Pascal does partially act as a wrapping up for loose ends. Fair enough. But the plot itself, based around the big romance between Pascal and Clotilde was implausible. There’s the age gap for one thing (he’s 59 & she’s 25); then there’s the vast differences in their belief systems. In addition, the novel begins their relationship clearly as uncle and niece. The leap to lovers just never worked for me, and perhaps this is due in part to the fact she calls him ‘master’.

Apart from that complaint, there are pages and pages of the two main characters and their religious debates. So very tedious. And then at other points Zola peers through the pages as the voice of Pascal when he heavy-handedly lectures about hereditary. 

Was there anything good about Doctor Pascal? Absolutely! It simply must be read in order to complete the cycle, and this last novel does indeed give a sense of completion. For example, the book’s first few scenes depict Clotilde drawing the most exotic pictures of flowers. These scenes hinted at shades of the fantastic embroideries of Angélique in The Dream. As a reader, I could see the thread of hereditary as it spread throughout the generations: the madness (in its various manifestations) and those on the edge of madness through the trait of destructive obsessiveness. At one point, for example, Félicité allows someone to burn to death (shades of the Conquest of Plassans here). It’s the perfect Rougon Crime of Opportunity (the best bit in the book), and although it’s suspected she played a role in his  death, what can be done about it? So yes, Zola’s intention to show the Rougon-Macquart family traits does work. Additionally, Doctor Pascal is a reunion of sorts as we hear about the continuing lives of other distant, rascally characters. Aristide Saccard, for example, after ruining the lives of thousands of people with his run-away investment schemes in Money is back. Maxime (The Kill, Money) the son of Saccard is gravely ill. The family matriarch, Adelaide Fouque (The Fortunes of the Rougons) is still alive and still living in the asylum. Octave Mouret (The Ladies’ Paradise, Pot Bouille) is a “King of Commerce,” and Jean (The Earth, Debacle) is alive, well, married and happy. It’s probably a healthy decision to stay away from the rest of his relatives.

My edition is from Mondial books and is translated by Mary J. Serrano

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Celebrated Crimes: The Countess de Saint-Geran by Dumas

“Possibly a more obstinate legal contest was never waged, on both sides, but especially by those who lost it.”

The Countess de Saint-Geran is one of Alexandre Dumas Celebrated Crimes series–18 essays in all, of varied length and now out of print but available used, POD, and also, as it happens, on my Kindle. A few months ago I read The Marquise de Brinvilliers and enjoyed it for its good sense of time and place through the details of trials and sicko torture. I suppose I’d expected the same sort of thing in The Countess de Saint-Geran which I selected at random from the Celebrated Crimes (written between 1839-1841). I knew nothing about the Countess de Saint-Geran before I started reading, and now after reading the story, I feel as though I only know slightly more.

Here’s the gist of the story:

The Countess of Saint-Geran and her husband had long given up the idea of ever producing an heir, and so, given the greed that overcomes people when faced with wills, inheritances, heirs and what-have-you, the Count’s sister, the Marchioness de Bouille– more-or-less expects to get the entire bundle when her brother and sister-in-law die, presumably childless. The Marchioness was originally married off to a man old enough to be her grandfather, but:

“The Marchioness de Bouille quarrelled with her old husband, the Marquis, separated from him after a scandalous divorce, and came to live at the château of Saint-Geran, quite at ease as to her brother’s marriage, seeing that in default of heirs all his property would revert to her.”

 So this is a woman with expectations.

“Such is the state of affairs when the Marquis of Saint-Maixent arrived at the château. He was young, handsome, very cunning, and very successful with women.” The Marquis of Saint-Maixent is a wastrel relative of the Count’s. He’s also a fugitive (more of that later), whose “own fortune is much impaired by his extravagance and by the exactions of the law, or rather in plain words, he had lost it all.”  He arrives at the castle and gets cosy with the Marchioness de Bouille, seeing, of course, the possibilities of a rich, single woman who will inherit everything. But the plans go down the toilet when it’s announced that the Countess, after years of marriage, is finally pregnant. At this point Saint-Maixent employs a shady midwife to dispose of the baby at birth.

So that’s the basic information. The Countess de Saint-Geran morphs into the criminal case about the abducted baby, the contested will, and the various claimants to the fortune.

Unfortunately The Countess de Saint-Geran lacks the clarity of the The Marquise de Brinvilliers, and this is due to several problems. In The Marquise de Brinvilliers, Dumas gave us a sense of exactly who this woman was, her appeal, her social dilemmas, and also her uncanny ability to control and manipulate people. This level of characterisation is missing from The Countess de Saint-Geran, and the main characters–wicked people acting  against the innocent, remain two-dimensional. There’s little detail beyond their names and the facts and figures of the case. We are told, for example, that the Marchioness was married off to a 70-year-old, but that the marriage ended in a scandalous divorce. A divorce in the early 17th century must have been a rare event, and that means that the Marchioness must have been a rare woman. There’s no information about who got the divorce or why. Was the Marchioness the plaintive or was her husband? I wanted to know these details as a little more information about the Marchioness would have added considerable interest to the story.  Was the Marchioness a woman who married her elderly husband with expectations that he’s die and leave her free and wealthy? If so what went wrong with that plan? Did he outlive her patience? When the Marchioness moved back to the Saint-Gerans’  chateau and expected to inherit a fortune from her brother and sister-in-law was there resentment against them that she’d be married off to some old git? Was this a woman who spent her life waiting for others to die so she’d inherit wealth and become, in essence, ‘free’?  Dumas tells us only that the Marchioness was:

married to a man who, it was said, gave her great cause for complaint, the greatest being his threescore years and ten.”

Another huge problem with The Countess de Saint Geran is that the story begins in 1639 with the “young nobleman”   the Marquis de Saint-Maixent a “consummate rascal”  arrested for a series of crimes. A large contingent of armed guards along with their innocent looking prisoner stop for the night to rest at an inn. Here the crafty Marquis pays for enough wine to get everyone drunk, manipulates an innkeeper’s daughter to help him escape, and then the Marquis dashes to the Bourbonnais castle of his relative the Count of Saint-Geran t0 seek sanctuary. Of course once there he begins scheming to get his hands on the fortune.

This earlier story of the Marquis of Saint-Maixent is never solved, never explored and yet here’s a man who is:

“accused, and indeed convicted, of coining and magic.”

“convicted of incest.”

“convicted of having strangled his wife to marry another, whose husband he had first stabbed.”

No small list of crimes, and since he was convicted there must have been a trial. No details are given here–instead Dumas gives us the Marquis in action as he escapes and heads for his unsuspecting relatives,  the Count and the Countess de Saint-Geran. The Marquis’ backstory is of considerable interest, and as it turns out is much more interesting that the Saint-Geran story, but it’s never explored even though Dumas structures his story with the initial focus on the wickedness of Saint-Maixant.

There were some additional problems in the story regarding the birth of the baby. How could a woman give birth and then be told she imagined it? Wouldn’t there be some virulent arguments there?

Much of the story bogs down in the details of the various court cases that evolve over the years. While it’s perfectly understandable why such a story would capture the imagination, it’s ultimately unsatisfying.  In spite of the occasional tendency to wander into grandstanding through the dramatic turns in events that rival the most tawdry soap opera, the story lacks life–although it was interesting to note that the lower-classes involved in the plot were assigned to torture while the upper-class instigators were handled quite differently.

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Debacle by Zola

Debacle is the 19th novel in Zola’s 20 volume Rougon-Macquart series. The novels are a history of France’s Second Empire told through two branches of a family and set against the  backdrop of historical events. The Rougons are the wealthier, legitimate and supposedly the more respectable branch of the family. That leaves the Macquarts as the more disreputable bunch. The Rougons are the power brokers & the wealth seekers while the Macquarts are in much humbler positions in life. The family is plagued with alcoholism and madness–although the madness can take various forms, and in some cases is even masked by religious fanaticism.

Debacle takes place in 1870-71, and the novel concerns the collapse of France’s Second Empire (1852-1870). In 1870, France declared war on Prussia, and by the summer of 1870 the French army suffered a succession of defeats at the hands of the Prussians culminating with the catastrophic Battle of Sedan. While the Emperor Napoleon III was captured and subsequently went into exile, France’s provisional government continued to fight to hold Paris for the next five months. This led to the Siege of Paris and the Paris Commune.

 Debacle which follows Money was published in 1892 and initially appeared in serial form. To place Jean, the main character of Debacle in the Rougon-Macquart family tree, he is the brother of Gervaise (L’Assommoir) and Lisa (The Belly of Paris). Jean also appeared in The Earth, and in that book, he married a peasant girl and worked as a farmer. At the end of The Earth, he’s lost his wife and decides to return to the army life. Can’t say I blame him as Zola’s book hardly presents a bucolic view of the vicious farming community.

I’ve been slowly reading my way through this series since 2007. Debacle was a novel which I dreaded reading as I knew it focused on the Franco-Prussian war, and I expected the novel to be dour heavy going. To my surprise, I enjoyed the novel far more than I expected to. Yes, there are horrible scenes of bloody mangled men and starving horses, and there are times that Zola seems to dwell on the minutia with an almost sadistic delight, but nonetheless, this really is a marvellous book, one of the best in the series, thanks to its incredibly strong characterizations. This is the Franco-Prussian war complete with details of battles, fuck-ups, routs and slaughter, but Zola never loses sight of his characters or their humanity.

The novel (I have the Penguin Classics edition translated by Leonard Tancock) is more or less spilt into three sections. The excellent introduction (also by Tancock) explains that Act I–the Trap (as he calls it) is the build-up to the war. Act II-The Disaster concerns the Battle of Sedan, and Act III-The Aftermath covers 3 Sept 1870 until May 1871. My copy even has a map of the countryside surrounding Sedan and a map of central Paris.

The novel’s first section builds with incredible, gruesome tension as Jean, a Corporal in the 7th army corps accompanies the soon-to-be defeated army to its doom. The soldiers are basically a disconnected lot–not happy to be there and not exactly brimming with patriotism. From the start, everything is a total muddle. The army is ordered one place then another. Divisions don’t arrive as expected while others go missing. There are rumours that the enemy is defeated or conversely that the Prussians have crushed the French army. Meanwhile the men are marched in the rain on empty stomachs and then marched back over the same territory a couple of days later. This is a logistics nightmare: fodder for horses is sent where there are no horses, weapons and ammunition are separated. Basically the army is starved and worn down until at its lowest point, it is driven into a trap where the slaughter takes place. Perhaps the most telling screw-up of all is that the French army officers do not have maps of France; they never anticipated they’d need them.

In one very early scene, Jean listens to a civilian named Weiss express uneasiness about a quick French victory against the Prussians. Weiss sees Prussia as a formidable enemy compared to the French Empire which he describes as “rotten” and “weakened.” The rational points Weiss raises are ignored or diminished by his audience but send an ominous chill of warning through the reader.

Debacle follows the fates of Jean & his fellow soldier Maurice as they march to and then are trapped in Sedan. It’s fascinating to see the civilians morph from cheering the troops on to realising that the battle isn’t going to take place in some far off land but may very well take place outside their front door. Some of the civilians join in the battle (and enter the story); others take enormous risks to smuggle a crust of bread to the captured French prisoners while the opportunitistic, declaring this is their contribution to the war effort, sell rotten food at inflated prices to the victorious Prussians.

War seems to naturally bring out the best and the worst in people, and in this novel Zola creates the spectrum of human behaviour.  Human nature at its best is compassionate and at its worst it’s self-serving. In Jean’s case, he strikes up a relationship with Maurice and tenderly watches out for the younger man, sharing his starvation rations and nursing him through illness. On the flip side, soldiers are prepared to murder each other for a crust of bread and in one particularly revolting scene, they slaughter a starving horse, eating chunks of grey meat until they collapse with stomach pains. Zola shows human nature in its duality–he’s unsparing in his depiction of callous brutality.

The third and final section of the book concerns the Paris Commune. Tancock states that Zola wasn’t much of a fan of the Commune. He makes the point that Zola, who was a journalist at the time and was therefore, an eyewitness to events in Paris ‘disapproved’ of the Commune as he “saw it as a degrading exhibition of human bestiality, with unspeakable atrocities committed by both sides, but his protest is against violence, cruelty, and destruction in whatever form and from whatever side.”  The air of mutiny, apparent in the novel’s very first pages, spills over to the aftermath of the war, so by the time we get to the novel’s third section, it’s easy to understand the rage of the Communards and their desire to initiate radical change. Jean and Maurice’s relationship assumes a symbolic meaning by the novel’s conclusion–a severing of the two sides of France–with the revolutionary elements, at least for now, squashed and discarded.

One of the egregious outrages in the story has to be in the huge difference between the  type of war fought by the foot soldier vs. the experience of the officers. From the very beginning some of the soldiers think they’ve been “sold-out.” They are premature in that declaration but yes they are sold out later on. In yet another instance of the discrepancy between the classes, the defeated French officers are freed by the Prussians while the French soldiers, the plebs, are imprisoned, kept under the most appalling circumstances and hauled out of France to an uncertain fate. On the other hand, here’s the Emperor (he appears as a self-defeated, largely confused hen-pecked husband) who travels to ‘war’ in style :

“And the wretched Emperor, this poor man who no longer had a job in his own empire, was to be carried round like some useless clutter in the baggage of his troops, condemned to drag after him the irony of his imperial establishment, his lifeguards, coaches, horses, cooks, vanloads of silver utensils and champagne, all the pomp of his robe of state, embroidered with imperial bees, trailing the roads of defeat in the blood and mire.”

 Zola still manages to find sympathy (he’s more generous than I am) for the spineless architect of this catastrophe. On the other hand, Zola creates Chouteau, a rather unpleasant character, who according to Zola is “a typical agitator,” a lazy trouble-maker who urges his fellow soldiers to desert the ranks. And yet even while Zola portrays Chouteau unappealingly, nonetheless Chouteau is also right, the soldiers will be herded to their doom and any who survive will be abandoned.

In Money, Zola brought the vast financial machinery of Paris to life. The Earth was an amazing tale of a close-knit, violent and hypocritical farming community, and now in Debacle, it’s war–the mounds of bodies sweltering & bloating in the sun while thousands of starving horses charge at night desperately looking for food:

“Over the top of a near-by slope some hundred  horses, riderless, some still carrying a full pack, were bearing down on them at breakneck speed. These were the stray animals left on the field of battle, who had instinctively gathered in a herd. They had had no hay or oats for two days, and had eaten the scanty grass, cropped hedges and even gnawed the bark of trees. whenever hunger caught them in the belly like a prick of the spurs, they all set off together in a mad stampede, charging straight through the empty, silent country, trampling on the dead and finishing off the wounded.”

And then again:

“As Maurice had foreseen, the thousands of horses interned with the army and which had not been fed were a menace that increased in seriousness each day. They had begun by eating the bark of trees, then they attacked trellises and fences, any sort of planks they could find, and now they were devouring each other. They could be seen hurling themselves on each other to tear the hair from their tails, which they chewed madly, foaming at the mouth, But it was above all at night that they became terrible, as though darkness brought them nightmares. They would gather together and charge at the few tents standing, looking for straw. It was useless for the men to light big fires to keep them off; the fires seemed to excite them still more. Their whinnyings were so pitiful and unnerving that they seemed like the roaring of wild beasts. If you drove them away they came back fiercer and more numerous than ever. And every minute during the hours of darkness you could hear a long cry of agony from some stray soldier trampled to death in this mad stampede.”

If Eugene Rougon is the greatest of the Rougons, then Jean is the best of the Macquarts. And this leaves me with just one more book left in the series…

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Against Nature by J.-K. Huysmans

 “Not for years had he stuffed and swilled with such abandon.”

This was a re-reading of Huysmans’ Against Nature (A Rebours). Stranded: En Rade is due to be published in September 2010 by Dedalus Books, and anticipating that book, I decided to return to Huysmans and refresh my memory. Plus I wasn’t happy with an earlier, shorter review I’d written. My copy is from Penguin with a translation and introduction from Robert Baldick. Baldick notes that Against Nature , a novel of the 19th century Decadent movement is the “keystone of Huysmans’ life and work” and also:

“the keystone of the so-called Decadence, that movement in France and England characterized by a delight in the perverse and artificial, a craving for new and complex sensations, a desire to extend the boundaries of emotional and spiritual experience.”

Huysmans, the son of a French mother and a Dutch father, worked as a junior clerk of the Ministry of the Interior. Initially one of “Zola’s Medan Group of young Realists, or rather Naturalists,”  Huysmans, who saw Naturalism as a  “blind alley,”  developed his own break-away style:

“to shake off preconceived ideas, to extend the scope of the novel, to introduce into it art, science, history; in a word, to use this form of literature only as a frame in which to insert more serious work”. The result was A Rebours.

Against Nature  concerns the last descendant of the once robust des Esseintes family, Duc Jean Floressas de Esseintes. The novel begins with the descriptions of the portraits of various members of the Floressas des Esseintes family:

Imprisoned in old picture-frames which were scarcely wide enough for their broad shoulders, they were an alarming sight with their piercing eyes, their sweeping mustachios, and their bulging chests filling the enormous cuirasses which they wore.

Over the centuries, “a ruinous process”   accelerated by inbreeding has resulted in the last of the Floressas des Esseintes line. The current Duc is a “frail young man of thirty who was anemic and highly strung.”  He suffers from various neuroses, phantom itching, and permanent indigestion. His mother, the late Duchess,  did not have a strong mental or physical constitution, and “had a nervous attack whenever she was subjected to light or noise.”

The book gives a brief history of Jean’s first thirty years. A sickly child, he is educated at a Jesuit school but he remains unfocused. When he reaches adulthood, Jean passes rapidly through several phases–debauchery followed by an attempt to mingle with the intelligentsia. Gradually he becomes completely jaded with humanity and concludes, “the world is made up mostly of fools and scoundrels.” But at the same time, Jean seeks the pleasures of the flesh:

Then he had kept mistresses already famed for their depravity, and helped to swell the funds of those agencies which supply dubious pleasures for a consideration. And, finally, weary to the point of satiety of these hackneyed luxuries, these commonplace caresses, he had sought satisfaction in the gutter, hoping that the contrast would revive his exhausted desires and imagining that the fascinating filthiness of the poor would stimulate his flagging senses.

That last line illustrates how Jean views the hideousness of poverty as a stimulating entertainment, and this need for a careful stimulation of his senses becomes a dominant drive in his life as the story continues. Jean begins to experience encroaching horror at the idea of contact with the masses, and he dreams of a sanctuary where “he might take refuge from the incessant deluge of human stupidity.” Having frittered away most of his fortune in “extravagant follies and riotous living” and with his health ruined (which may have some something to do with “unnatural love affairs and perverse pleasures”), Jean decides to sell the family château, and taking what’s left of his fortune he buys a villa near Fontenay-aux-Roses.  

Jean believes that “Nature…has had her day.” To him, “human ingenuity”   is superior and can manufacture perfection, and so he builds a refuge from the rest of humankind with this idea in mind. Jean goes to torturous lengths to create a perfect world for himself within his villa beginning with elaborate colour schemes and the finest materials. Part of his design is to create illusions, so that, for example, a ceiling appears to harbour a window to the sky (it doesn’t). Another room “resembled a ship’s cabin” which enables Jean to “imagine himself between decks in a brig” while he gazes through a “porthole” housing mechanical fish. These artificial sensations are further enhanced by the subtle addition of smells and cleverly designed lighting. He sets his schedule to avoid any hint of contact with the servants, but just in case he happens to catch a glimpse of them, he requires them to dress in costume to manufacture the  “impression of convent life.” 

In attempting to ‘better’ nature and to re-create nature but without the imperfections, Jean is self-centered and indulges every selfish, peevish whim and fixation. The author’s focus details Jean’s obsessions. 13 pages are spent describing why Jean likes or loathes particular Latin authors, and several pages describe a painting of Salome.  His quest to improve nature even goes so far as having a tortoise “embellished” with a jewel-encrusted shell. While I found this the most revolting of Jean’s actions, the most amusing actions include: his short-lived desire to travel to England, his love affair with a ventriloquist, his reading life, and his obsession with perfumes. The author explores every tiny crevice of artificial sensation in this fascinatingly corrupt and warped study of ennui in the face of manufactured beauty and pleasure. Why doesn’t it surprise me that Jean even gets a cheap thrill from enemas.

Jean’s desire to improve upon nature is in essence a denial of mortality. By perfecting nature, improving upon nature, beating nature, in the process he subconsciously hopes to best his ailments and his looming death in his elegant joust of the pleasures of Decadence vs the sordid realities of the flesh. It’s easy to see why Oscar Wilde loved Against Nature, and indeed the introduction includes the fact that Huysmans’ book came up in the Queensberry trial of Oscar Wilde. Wilde had mentioned a “yellow-backed book” in his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Wilde identified the book readily enough as Huysmans’ A Rebours, [but] he refused to say anything about its morality or immorality; ‘to ask a writer to pass moral judgement on a fellow writer’s work was,’  he said, ‘an impertinence and a vulgarity’. 

On another note, and certainly one I did not predict when I began this review, I recently watched the French film Home from director Ursula Meier and mulled over once again that the connections in life are peculiar. The film (which stars Isabelle Hupeprt, btw) concerns a family of five who live way out in the boonies off of an abandoned highway. The house in which they live is a mess, complete with a concreted hole that will supposedly eventually be a swimming pool in the front garden. The house is in total isolation, and it’s impossible to tell whether it’s being fixed up or run down. The family more or less runs wild,  playing games on the abandoned highway and watching television outside under the stars. The fun comes to an abrupt end when the highway is reopened and thousands of cars beginning whizzing by the home at breakneck speed. The family members discover to one degree or another, that their sprawl can no longer continue. The inflatable pool next to the highway is eventually abandoned and even lacy underwear is no longer hung out on the line to dry.

It may seem odd to connect Huysmans’ masterpiece of Decadence to this French family. Jean would cringe at the comparison, and no doubt he would find the family hideously appalling. Both Jean and this French gypsy-style clan seek isolation from life, and they both insulate their homes from the noise and pollution of outside culture. Inevitably, however,  ‘civilisation’ such as it is catches up to everyone.

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Money by Zola

Money is the eighteenth volume in Zola’s spectacular Rougon-Macquart cycle–a “natural and social history of a family during the Second Empire.” The series is winding down, and as it turns out, so is the Second Empire.  Under examination in these volumes are various members of the Rougon-Macquart family which is split into two branches: the wealthier and supposedly more respectable branch, the Rougons and the lower-born Macquarts. The establishment of the family is discussed in the first volume The Fortunes of the Rougons, and then the subsequent volumes follow the lives of various family members while exposing the reappearance of family traits: the relentless quest for wealth, madness and alcoholism. The Rougon-Macquarts aren’t exactly a pleasant bunch, and that brings me to Money.

The main character of Money is Aristide Saccard. Saccard appears in the first volume of the series, The Fortunes of the Rougons, and he is also a main character in the second volume The Kill. Money is a sequel of sorts to The Kill, but these two novels were written almost 20 years apart from each other (The Kill was published in 1871 and Money was serialised in 1890). To place Saccard in the Rougon-Macquart family tree, his real name is Aristide Rougon; originally from Plassans, he’s the youngest son of Pierre & Felicite Rougon, and the brother of Eugene and Sidonie Rougon.

Money begins a few months after the death of Renee Saccard (The Kill). It’s Paris in 1864, and Saccard is now a bankrupt. The novel opens with Saccard loitering in the Bourse (stock exchange), noting that people can measure their success or failure by whether or not they are greeted, fawned upon or avoided like pariahs. At this point in Saccard’s life, he falls into the latter category. Saccard’s currency has plummeted since the boom years of Baron Haussman’s reconstruction of Paris, and  “he realised the necessity of slipping into some new skin.” Saccard, who is nothing more than an embarrassment to his politician brother, Eugene Rougon, hopes that a little nepotism will guarantee a political career as he feels “discontented with speculation.” While Saccard daydreams of a position in the “upper circles of the Civil Service” Rougon intends using his influence to get rid of Saccard by shipping him off to be a governor in some remote colony.

Schemers like Saccard are naturally drawn to idealistic dreamers, and propinquity leads to a relationship with an impoverished brother and sister team, the engineer Hamelin and Madame Caroline. The three friends spend many evenings together concocting plans, and consequently “the bond of intimacy between them was drawn tighter.”  Saccard, sparked by the desire to one-up his brother, combined with his rabid anti-Semitism, conceives of a grand plan to create The Universal Bank. Hamelin and Madame Caroline fuel Saccard’s plans with their enthusiastic ideas to improve trade routes in Asia Minor. While Saccard wants to make millions, Hamelin is motivated by religious fervour–ultimately he plans to establish the pope in Palestine.

The first hurdle for Saccard is to get enough money to start his bank, and by sheer force of personality (and a few connections) he manages it. The bank stock is initially distributed at 500 francs a share, and then Saccard goes to work committing large-scale fraud. He buys up various newspapers which function to fuel excitement about the bank’s profits. Saccard also uses a number of agents to buy stock, thus falsely inflating its worth.

Of course, the fraud cannot continue forever, and when the bank shares inflate to more than 3000 francs, it becomes obvious that there is something wrong….

A large portion of Money is devoted to Saccard’s endless and tireless endeavours to build up the Universal Bank. Many of these scenes take place at the Bourse with various agents scrambling around for clients or forming alliances. As the share prices mount, the shareholders wonder if the success can be sustained, and Saccard becomes obsessed with continuing the madness–no matter the cost. Some stockholders panic, but Saccard’s assurances have a “tranquilizing” result on those who want to sell and make a profit while they can. Throughout it all, impoverished family members pin their meagre fortunes on Saccard who is seen as a messianic figure. In one great scene, Saccard compares his ventures to that of Napoleon and reveals his megalomania in the process:

“Not succeed, nonsense! Money was lacking , that was all. If Napoleon, on the day of Waterloo, had had another hundred thousand men to send to the butchery, he would have triumphed, and the face of the world would have been changed. And if I had had the necessary few millions to throw into the gulf, I should now be the master of the world.”

Money is a study in human nature, and as the story develops, Zola illustrates how money enters every aspect of life and just how far people will go to possess it. Women prostitute themselves for a sou or for a fortune, and relatives turn on each other, neglecting duty and obligation for the promise of profit. Sordid histories are revealed with money gained from nefarious circumstances and in other instances fortunes are drained through a range of human vices. As the insane euphoria continues and stockholders think that they are millionaires, many become consumed with greed and grandiosity. Madness reigns as dowries are imagined and advantageous marriages are planned.

The stock exchange, once handed over to the likes of Saccard, is little more than a gambling den, and it becomes clear that the only way to stop Saccard is to take away the dice. Here’s financier Gundermann when Saccard hits him for investment money:

“You are wrong to go into business again; I render you a real service in refusing to launch your syndicate; you will inevitably come to grief, it is mathematically certain, for you are much too enthusiastic, you have too much imagination; and besides, matters always end badly when one deals with other people’s money. Why doesn’t your brother find you a good post, eh? a prefecture, or else a financial receivership–no, not a receivership, that also is too dangerous. Beware, my good friend, beware.”

As it turns out, Gundermann has Saccard’s number–the man simply shouldn’t be allowed around money. To Saccard money is an addiction. Put a little money in his hands, set him loose, and he won’t stop scheming until he’s taken away in chains.

Since the issue of money is at the fore in the novel, it’s appropriate that debt collectors are included in the bazaar-like atmosphere surrounding the Bourse. The debt-collectors are integral to the plot–mainly because Victor, a hideously misshapen lad is under the care of debt-collector bottom-feeders La Mechain and Busch. Victor becomes valuable when it’s discovered that he’s Saccard’s bastard son. The creation of Victor also allows Zola to introduce his ideas of scientific determinism.  Madame Caroline compares Victor to Saccard’s foppish son, Maxime:

“So much vile wretchedness, hunger, and filth on one hand, and on the other such exquisite refinement, abundance and beautiful life. Could money, then be education, health, intelligence? And if the same human mud remained beneath, if not all civilisation consist in the superiority of smelling nice and living well?”

Sigismond, the brother of bottom-feeder Busch is another minor, yet important idealistic character. Sigismond believes that a healthy society can only be formed with the abolition of money and the wage system. While Sigismond hopes to convert the world to Marxism, he’s diametrically opposed to Hamelin who hopes to convert everyone to religion through commerce. In spite of the fact that Sigismond sees money as a toxic, corrupting force, he’s also consumed with the subject of money and how it operates within the world. There’s one great scene in which Sigismond holds up a sou to Saccard and declares that the day is coming when money and its misused power will be no more. Saccard declares this is nonsense, but deeply unsettled by the prospect, he mutters “there would be nothing left.”

Another great character, Saccard’s son, Maxime must be mentioned. He appeared in The Kill, and here he is again. Now he is completely and sensibly estranged from his father Saccard, and he refuses to get involved with the bank. Maxime is hardly the book’s moral centre, and instead he’s a bored bystander. Here’s Maxime, a perfumed, cosseted dandy when he hears that he has a bastard brother:

“What, what! So I am not the only son! A frightful little brother falls on me from the sky, without so much as shouting ‘look out!’ “

Once Maxime gets over the initial shock, he starts shining his nails with a “tortoiseshell polisher.”

Money is a splendid addition to the Rougon-Macquart cycle, and once again I am impressed with Zola’s ability to create vastly different worlds. This novel seems amazingly modern, but perhaps this is possibly due to the fact that Zola captures the unchanging face of human nature. Here’s my favourite passage:

“Madame Caroline raised her eyes. She had reached the Place de la Bourse, and saw the Temple of Money in front of her. The twilight was falling. Behind the building a ruddy cloud hung in the fog-laden wintry sky–a cloud like the smoke of a conflagration, charged with the flames and the dust of a stormed city. And against this cloud the Bourse stood out grey and gloomy in the melancholiness born of the catastrophe which, for a month past, had left it deserted, open to the four winds of heaven, like some market which famine had emptied. Once again had the inevitable, periodical epidemic come–the epidemic which sweeps through it every ten or fifteen years–the Black Fridays, as the speculators say, which strew the soil with ruins. Years are needed for confidence to be restored, for the great financial houses to be built up anew, and time goes slowly by until the passion for gambling, gradually reviving, flames up once more and repeats the adventure, when there comes another crisis, and the downfall of everything in a fresh disaster. This time, however, beyond the ruddy smoke on the horizon, in the distant parts of the city, it seemed as though one could hear a vague sound of splitting and rending, betokening the end of a world–the world of the Second Empire.”

My copy from Mondial books is translated by Vizetelly. Mondial Books (an independent book publisher in New York) has a number of Zola novels (and many other interesting titles) to their credit.  

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The Black Sheep by Balzac

This is a re-reading of Balzac’s  The Black Sheep, and as it turns out, this was a most appropriate time to read a tale of an inheritance, rival siblings, and an unscrupulous, manipulative woman.  When it comes to portraying human greed, Balzac is a master, and in this novel, he turns his eye (and pen) to two strikingly dissimilar brothers, Philippe and Joseph Bridau.

The book begins in Issoudon in the year 1792 with a rather long preamble which gives the history of the Rouget family, and as it turns out, this history is necessary to understanding the last part of the tale. Agathe Rouget is the daughter of a rather nasty doctor, a man “who’s not easy to get on with.” That seems to be putting it mildly, and Balzac laces the tale of Doctor Rouget and his unfortunate wife with innuendos.  While Rouget, a petty domestic tyrant, dotes on his “great booby of a son,” and encourages Jean-Jacques’ very worst behaviour, he loathes Agathe as he suspects that she was fathered by another man. So when an opportunity arises to get rid of Agathe, the “wily” and “vindictive” Rouget ships his young daughter off to Paris to the home of her maternal uncle, a grocer named Desgoings. Unfortunately, the grocer falls foul of the guillotine within a week of Agathe’s arrival, but then, Bridau, a minor official, falls in love with Agathe and they marry. The Bridaus have two boys Philippe and Joseph.

Over the passage of years, Bridau now a hard-working civil servant, basically works himself to death while serving under Napoleon. Bridau leaves his widow and two sons in modest circumstances but with a pension to keep them  in simple, but genteel style. At this point in the story, the widow Desgoings makes the practical decision to move in with Agathe, her niece by marriage, so that they can pool their resources.

Despite the fact that Agathe has been effectively disinherited from her family, life should not be too unpleasant for Madame Bridau and her two sons, but human vices get in the way. Madame Desgoings turns out to have a gambling problem, and then the Bridau boys grow up….

This all happens by about page 36 in my Penguin copy translated by Donald Adamson. The rest of the story is devoted to the Bridau brothers, Philippe and Joseph. Philippe grows up to become an appalling human being, and at first he seems to hit his stride as a rapidly advancing officer in Napoleon’s army. After the Battle of Waterloo, Philippe, now a colonel becomes just another of Napoleon’s bitter ex-officers, drinking in the local taverns, sporting with prostitutes, gambling money he borrows or steals from his family, and living beyond his means. In the meantime, Joseph, the less favoured but good son, becomes an artist.  

Philippe’s debts lead to his mother’s impoverishment, and there’s a brief respite when he sets sail for America to help in the founding of the Champ d’Asile. Unfortunately this venture turns out to be “one of the most terrible confidence tricks ever to have been disguised as a national appeal.” Philippe returns home from his misadventures more of a miscreant than ever:

“He had become brutal, impertinent and rude; he had been depraved by hardship and physical suffering. Moreover, the colonel considered himself as having been persecuted. The consequence is to make unintelligent people hostile and intolerant of themselves. In Philippe’s eyes, the whole universe began at his head and ended at his feet, and the sun shone only for him. Finally, life in New York–as seen and interpreted by this man of action–had removed his remaining scruples in matters of morality. With people of this kind only two attitudes towards life are possible: they either believe or disbelieve; they either have all the gentlemanly virtues or they surrender themselves to each and every requirement of necessity. They then get into the habit of exalting into a necessity the slightest self-interest, the most fleeting whim of passion. Such a theory can take a man far. The colonel had preserved–but only in outward appearance–the soldierly qualities of straightforwardness, frankness and unconstraint. For this reason, he was exceedingly dangerous.”

The plot thickens when Agathe tries to extract some of her lost inheritance from Jean-Jacques, her addlepated brother who’s under the sway of his former servant, the manipulative, buxom Flore Brazier. In her turn, Flore is in the power of Maxence Gilet, another ex-officer of Napoleon’s army who has become “throughly depraved.” He maintains a band of local young men called the Knights of Idleness who cause all manner of mischief in the town. When Max hears that Agathe is about to descend upon Issoudun, he’s determined that he will not relinquish control of Jean-Jacques or his fortune. This of course pits a throughly disreputable character against the timidity of Agathe and her painfully honest son, Joseph.

One of the points the novel makes is that the swashbuckling braggarts who do well in war, stagnate and rot in peacetime. Both Maxence and Philippe could very possibly have sustained glittering careers under Napoleon, but now as civilians, both men only create trouble for those who love them. This reminds me of the Balzac novella, Colonel Chabert–a great hero in wartime but in peacetime… well he’s just in the way.

Philippe is really a dreadful character. He’s an egoist who mistreats his mother and these days we would say that he treats her rather like a cash machine. Agathe is sadly used and abused, and since she’s dumped on, she’s not much of an interesting character. But the story really reaches its pinnacle when Philippe sets out to destroy his doppelgänger, Maxence. These two men are very well-matched and it’s inevitable that they should clash as adversaries over the spoils. The novel succeeds so well partly due to the parallels drawn by the author: Maxence and Philippe both cannot exist in the same world. They are too alike and one must destroy the other. Another interesting element in the novel is  the murky issue of paternity. Agathe is cast aside due to her father’s most-probably deranged jealousies, yet Maxence is embraced due to the exaggerations of his illegitimacy. Thus Balzac makes the point that legitimacy is a coin to trade when it is convenient to do so.

The Black Sheep,  one of my favourite Balzac novels, makes the argument that nice people finish last–well most of the time, but that said, nasty people have a way of destroying themselves if you give them enough rope. As always with Balzac, money is power, and here we see the depths to which some people are prepared to sink in order to gain a fortune. Even though Balzac is one of my favourite authors I have to admit he isn’t perfect. While he is spot on target when it comes to the predictability of human nature, his novels sometimes show a distinct lack of discipline. In The Black Sheep, for example, I became distracted over the endless details of the recurring devaluation of Agathe’s pension. I imagine that these days an editor would red-line entire passages to create a leaner, meaner Balzac. But that said, I really don’t care even though Balzac’s sometimes curious drive to add all sorts of details can distract from the tale at hand.

The story of the two brothers, Philippe and Joseph is modelled on Balzac’s relationship with his brother Henri. The Black Sheep, published in 1842, is one of Balzac’s novels from The Human Comedy (La Comedie Humaine), a collection of novels set in 19th century France. Balzac died before his project was completed.

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