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.

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