Saturday, December 12, 2009

La Fortune des Rougon: Winter in Provence

The first book in Zola's Rougon-Maquart series, La Fortune des Rougon is also one of Zola's earliest novels, surprisingly (to me) fully conceived, carefully written, and masterfully-structured.

Unlike Balzac’s Comédie humaine, the overall plan of the series is sketched out in this first book, which introduces this complex family, a score of its members, and a hint of the obsessions of both the characters and Zola himself.

There are two main narrative lines: The story of the youth Silvère, an apprentice carriage-maker and republican idealist and his young love Miette, a servant-girl at a vegetable farm; the second is the resistible and sometimes comical rise of Pierre Rougon as he goes from being the son of a peasant to the most prominent man on the small Provençal city, the fictional Plassans (a version of Zola’s native Aix-en-Provence.

First, the lovers’ plot. I had not expected that the master satirist/detailed observer Zola could write so lyrically and wondrously as he does in the first section. Silvère and Miette, both orphans and in dire circumstances, meet after hours and secretly in an old graveyard, now converted to a lumberyard. They hold on to each other with desperate (unconsummated) love.

Most of the chapter has these two very young lovers – he is around 18, she is 14, as I remember – literally walking as one through the beauties of the frosty landscape outside the town. Both are wrapped n Miette’s capacious woolen “pelisse,” a custom, we are told, for wooing couples in the South of France. Muffled and hooded in the cloak, they are unidentifiable, free from scandal.

They are clutching to each other fro warmth, both body warmth and the warmth of affection, something they otherwise lack in their lives. They shuffle along as one in the folds of the pelisse, losing all human form.

They wander by the river, fields and woods, all dimly lit and magical:

“Par cette nuit de décembre, sous la lune claire et froide, les champs fraîchement labourés s’étendaient aux deux abords du chemin, pareils à de vastes couches d’ouate grisâtre, qui auraient amorti tous les bruits de l’air. Au loin, la voix sourde de la Viorne mettait seule un frisson dans l’immense paix de la campagne.”

(On this December night, under a clear, cold moon, the freshly plowed fields stretched out on both sides of the road, like vast layers of grayish cotton, which would deaden all noises in the air. Far away, only the muffled voice of the Viorne added a tingle to the immense peace of the countryside.)
But the idyll is soon interrupted by the (anticipated) arrival of ghostly columns of rebels, supporters of the Republic, both peasantry and working-class rising defend it, singing the Marseillaise. Like a catalog of Homeric heroes, Silvère describes to Miette each contingent as it passes by. From neighboring town and village they march, each carrying what weapons they can gather: carbines for the poachers and smugglers, old blunderbusses and muskets for tradesmen, axes for the lumbermen, scythes for pitchforks by the peasants.

The chapter ends with Silvère joining the ranks, and Miette ending up taking the standard, becoming a kind of mascot for the troops, who march on into Plassans.

The dreamlike nature of this chapter is reinforced by its lack of specificity in terms of the wider world. Which of a number of uprisings in French history could this be? We are given no clear idea yet, though we’ll soon enough get a complete context.

The night, the cold, the former graveyards (from which bones still occasionally emerge), and the ghostly army all point toward a tragic ending for the two lovers. And of them, we still know very little beyond what happens in the few hours of the events of this chapter.

Zola suspends the story at this point, to fill in 50 years of retrospective narrative. We won’t learn the lovers’ fate until much later in the book. The dreamy beginning is impressively contrary to (my) expectations.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Paris in the rain

Balzac’s ability to describe a lively Paris street scene perhaps owes something to such 18th century works as Rétif de ka Bretonne’s Nuits de Paris (1786), the eye for details, the robust energy, and the keen awareness of class distinctions are among the best features of his writing.

Take, for example, a scene from Ferragus, where the driven amateur detective Maulincour gets caught in a Paris downpour, “une de ces belles pluies…dont chaque goutte fait cloche en tombant sur les flaques d’eau de la voie publique.
(one of those beautiful rains…each drop of which peals like a bell while falling on the puddles in street.)

A Parisian “foot-soldier” is forced to find shelter, either in the shops or café (if he has the money to spend) or else under a porte cochère “asile des gens pauvres ou mal mis” (asylum for the poor and the ill-dressed).

Balzac once again presents himself as a” painter in words” since the actual painters fall short: “Comment aucun de nos peintres n’a-t-il pas encore essayé de reproduire la physionomie d’un essaim de Parisiens groupés, par un temps d’orage, sous le porche humide d’une maison ? “

(Why hasn’t one of our painters yet tried to reproduce the physionomy of a swarm of Parisians grouped, by stormy weather, under the damp porch of a house.)

He then describes the dreaming/philosophical pedestrian who enjoys the beauty of the rainfall, “les tourbillons d’eau blanche que le vent roule en poussière lumineuse sur les toits “ (the whirlpools of white water that the wind rolls in the luminous dust on the roofs.)

There is the chatty pedestrian, who complains while talking with the (female) porter; the porter herself, who leans on her broom like a grenadier on his rifle, the penniless pedestrian, who doesn’t worry about his rags getting dirty as he leans on the wall; the “scientific” pedestrian who tries to read, without much success, the posters on eth wall; the laughing pedestrian, who makes fun of those who get soaked on the street; the silent pedestrian who studies all the windows on the street; the hard-working pedestrian, hefting a bag or a box, interpreting the rain in terms of profit and loss; the friendly pedestrian; finally, the true Parisian bourgeois, who always prepared, has brought his umbrella.

“Selon son caractère, chaque membre de cette société fortuite contemple le ciel, s’en va sautillant pour ne pas se crotter, ou parce qu’il est pressé, ou parce qu’il voit des citoyens marchant malgré vent et marée, ou parce que la cour de la maison étant humide et catarrhalement mortelle, la lisière, dit un proverbe, est pire que le drap.”

(each member of this chance society, in accordance with his character, contemplates the sky, leaves leaping to avoid getting dirty, or because he’s ina hurry, or because he sees others walking in spite of the wind and the tide, or because the courtyard of the house and deadly for catching colds, the list, says a proverb, s worse than the cloth. [which means, I gather, better to be in the midst of it than hanging around on the edge.])

A sudden cross-section, in terms of class and temperament, comes together and quickly disperses like a passing shower.