Thursday, February 11, 2010

Dumas père, La Reine Margot (1848)

I hadn’t read any of Dumas’s novels since I was in high school, when I read them voraciously. So, how would I react to them after having read so widely in modern literature and developed (I hope) pretty sophisticated literary tastes? After all, Dumas is dismissed as a writer of silly action novels, written in factory circumstances with a team of co-writers and researchers.

Well, based on rereading La Reine Margot, I still think Dumas is terrific and look forward to rereading more. La Reine Margot is, I believe, the most perfect historical novel ever. Why?

1. It’s about an amazing piece of history, starting with the Saint Bartholomew massacre of Huguenots to the death of Charles IX and the accession of Henri III, his brother and the last of the Valois dynasty. Even more important is a duel of wits between Catherine De’ Medici, that fascinating mother of three kings, all of whom she survived, and the future Henri IB, at that point titular King of Navarre and famous for his cleverness at avoiding death. Finally, there is the beautiful and passionate Marguerite de Navarre, the sister of Charles IX and the daughter of Catherine De' Medici, and the wife of Henri de Navarre. While she pursues love elsewhere, she works with her husband to foil her mother’s attempts to have him killed.

2. It’s actually pretty historically accurate as far as U can tell. Marguerite’s lover de Mole was not a Huguenot who escapes the massacre in her bedchamber as the novel has it, bur rather himself a bigoted Catholic. On the other and, Marguerite did hide another Huguenot during the riots. There is no proof that Catherine mistakenly killed her own son by poison, but there certainly was a rumor to that effect. The chronology of the novel is handled “creatively’ at points.

3. Nevertheless, much of the novel is based on fact. Unlike most historical novels, all of the characters of any significance (except for a few servants) and there are almost dozen of them) are real historical figures. And their characters are very much in keeping with the real ones, as far as I can tell the weak-wiled and treacherous Duke of Alençon, for example, another son of Catherine, was exactly that on real life.

4. The structure of the novel is perfection. Although it involves many characters and many actions, and even though it is constrained, for the most part, by historical events, it ha san amazingly centered and coherent, with no digressions and no history lesson. All of the action takes place within Paris, and much of it within the walls of the Louvre. The fates of each of the characters are spelled out, not left hanging.

5. True, the novel has the melodramatic and Gothic trappings you’d expect: conspiracies, torture chambers, secret passages, trap doors, ambushes, disguises, poisoned books and poisoned lipstick. But it also has subtle verbal exchanges, some real comedy, and multi=dimensional characters., with dialog that is the opposite of bombast.

6. Dumas is an excellent dramatist. And he had a score of successful dramas and comedies. His first success was as in a theater, with a play about Henri III, a play as ground-breaking as Hugo's more famous Hernani. It was almost twenty years later that he published the Three Musketeers and obtained fame as a novel, his second career. As a dramatist, Dumas knows how to set up a scene, and there are dozens of exciting ones. These include the night of the massacre, nighttime love assignations, divinations, escapes, court balls, and, above all, an exciting hunt where Navarre saves the life of Charles X by killing a wild boar that was about to finish the king off. Even quiet scenes, such as Charles and Henri's visit to Charles’ mistress, where he shows off the illegitimate (and only) son, making Navarre vow to protect it.

7. The unity extends to a smoothness of style that presents the narrative with a single voice. Dumas may have written collaboratively, but there’s no doubt who is in control here.

L a Reine Margot is a treasure, It’s escapists, yes, but it’s in no way is it a less artistic creation than any of the other books I have read.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Gautier, "Une Nuit de Cléopâtre" (1838)

Yet another Orientalist fantasy, this short tale is more of an erotic prose poem than anything else. The burden is the story of a young Egyptian, a super-manly hunter of lions in the desert, who falls in love with the unapproachable Cleopatra. As she gets rowed down the Nile, bored and hot, he follows in a small reed boat. When she reaches one of her palaces, he follows, then shoots a mysterious love letter (attached to an arrow) into her quarters, one that inspires her erotic dreams. The next day, hl surprises her undressed in her outdoor bath. sort of like Actaeon and Diana, She stops her eunuchs from stabbing him, and offers to save his life for an amorous night before she has him killed.
"J’aurais le droit de te faire tuer sur-le-champ ; mais tu me dis que tu m’aimes, je te ferai tuer demain.
(I would have the right to have you killed on the spot; but you tell me that you love me, I'll have you killed tomorrow.)

Again with the killing of wild felines in the desert!

The decadent luxury of the desert is celebrated, the heated sensuality, the fascination with despotism, a sexually voracious woman – all typical of 19th century France.

The whole story is based on synesthesia.

First, the Nile is painted like Romantic landscape:

Une brume ardente et rousse fumait à l’horizon incendié.
(A burning, reddish mist smoked in the flaming horizon.)
des marnes verdâtres,des ocres roux, des tufs d’un blanc farineux.
(greenish shale, the red clay. the tufts of floury white.)
Then, the exotic costumes of the characters are detailed:
son corps, couvert de plumes imbriquées et peintes de différents émaux, enveloppait le sommet du crâne
(his body [of the bird on Cleo's hat]. covered with overlapping of variously enameled, enveloped the top of her skull.)
C’était un homme basané, fauve comme du bronze neuf, avec des luisants bleuâtres et miroitants.
(He was a swarthy man, tawny like fnew bronze, with shimmering blueish glow)
And the sounds:

Le seul bruit qu’on entendît, c’était le chuchotement et les rires étouffés des crocodiles pâmés de chaleur qui se vautraient dans les joncs du fleuve.
(The only noise that could be heard was the whispering and the strangled laughter of the crocodiles, swooning from the heat, wallowing in the reeds of the river.)
You've got to love those swooning, laughting crocs.

And the smells and sense of touch:

l’on ne respire pour parfum que l’odeur acre du naphte et du bitume qui bout dans les chaudières des embaumeurs.
The only perfume you could breathe in was the bitter odor of naphtha and of asphalt which boiled in the embalmers' cauldrons.
vastes jardins remplis de mimosas, de caroubiers, d’aloès, de citronniers, de pommiers persiques, dont la fraîcheur luxuriante faisait un délicieux contraste avec l’aridité des environs
(vast gardens filled with mimosas, carob-trees, aloes, citrus trees, peach trees, whose luxurious coolness made for a delicious contest with the aridity of the surroundings)
Gautier deserves his reputation as the father of the Decadent movement. His perfumed, overheated prose would be amplified through the century.

(Picture = Delacroix, Cléopârew et le Paysan")

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Balzac, “Une Passion dans le désert” (1830)

Une Passion dans le désert” (1830) is a short story where Balzac tries his hand at
Orientalism. That theme/setting, so dear to his contemporaries, had been the scene for much European literature the 18th century, from Voltaire to Montesquieu. But the Romantic take, based to some extend on the retold experiences of veterans of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, goes beyond the formulaic seraglio or pasha's palace, out into nature – in this case the Sahara desert.

The passion here is one between man (a French soldier escaped from captivity) and leopard. Fleeing the Bedouins who have taken him to an oasis, he spends the night in a cave for the night. He wakes up in terror next to the blood-flecked leopard (who has killed and fed on the horse he escaped with), but he is surprised to find that the sated cat adopts him, allowing “herself” to be petted and scratched like a pussycat.

The two warily adopt each other, the soldier torn between desire to slit the leopard’s throat, fear of a failed attempt, and fascination with the savage beauty of the feline. The cat flirts with him, reminds him of a jealous mistress, and purrs (“rourou”) as he gets nuzzled. When the soldier tries to escape at night, getting caught in quicksand, the leopard drags back by the collar to her lair.

The tension and playfulness ends when the leopard, back from a hunt, for no apparent reason half-playfully sinks his teeth into the soldier’s thigh, like a cat nipping her owner. He immediately slits the cat’s throat, and when he is at last found and rescued by fellow French troops, we is weeping over the corpse.

In this story, Balzac does not fall into speculative quasi-philosophical or sociological digressions, as he does in many early works. While these can be strong features of some stories, they often feel like filler, as Balzac scribbled on his famous all-night coffee high to meet a deadline with creditors on his heels. Here, the narrative is straightforward, and, given its nature, has very little dialog.

The “Orient” is portrayed in vivid colors. I was tempted to write that it was Delacroix’s famous paintings of lions and tigers in the desert that inspired this painterly work, but those paintings were created in the 1850s, 20 years later.

Here’s one example of the painterly description (based, of course, on no real observation – Balzac never got south of Italy in his life):

Il étudia pendant la nuit les effets de la lune sur l'océan des sables où le simoun produisait des vagues, des ondulations et de rapides changements. Il vécut avec le jour de l'Orient, il en admira les pompes merveilleuses ; et souvent, après avoir joui du terrible spectacle d'un ouragan dans cette plaine où les sables soulevés produisaient des brouillards rouges et secs, des nuées mortelles.

(During the night he studied the effects of the moon on the ocean of sand where the simoon produced waves, undulations and rapid changes. He lived with daylight of the Orient; he admired its marvelous ceremonies; and often, after having enjoyed the terrible spectacle of a hurricane in that plain where the stirred-up sands produced dry, red fogs, deadly clouds.)
It would hard to call Balzac a Romantic, but in this story he certainly writes like one. Yje fascination with the far away, with the “terrible spectacle”, and the heroic domination of nature all have the taste of High Romanticism.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Le Salon jaune (La Fortune des Rougon)

While Antoine burns with jealousy for the bourgeois high life of his half-brother Pierre and sister-in-law, the Rougons themselves, once they retire from the olive oil business, find themselves hard pressed to keep up the middle-class lifestyle.

As a result, they rent an apartment at the edge of the artisan quarter, one that looks out at the houses of the rich. One especially, that of the local receveur particulier (a financial sinecure) is the obsession of Félicité Rougon, who looks longingly out her window as at that wealthy man’s house, the target of her ambitions. And in the end, that fellow is shot by friendly fire during the rebellion, and Pierre succeeds to his office and place in society.

The Rougons become the hosts of the salon of the town’s reactionaries. It’s quite a menagerie of old cranks: Legitimists, Orleanists, Bonapartists, anything but Republicans. But it is the rather threadbare yellow living room, “le salon jaune” that troubles them above all.

The “salon jaune” is a dismal haunt of petty bourgeois aspiration. Félicité has done what she could with the apartment, but with limited money there was little to do. In terms of improving it.
Le salon avait ainsi pris une étrange couleur jaune qui l’emplissait d’un jour faux et aveuglant ; le meuble, le papier, les rideaux de fenêtre étaient jaunes ; le tapis et jusqu’aux marbres du guéridon et des consoles tiraient eux-mêmes sur le jaune.”
(The living room had thus taken on a strange yellow color which filled with a false and blinding daylight; the furniture, the wallpaper, the felt curtains were yellow; the carpet, even the marble of the table and credenza tool on the yellow tint.”

This shabby room, with worn upholstery and fly-specks on the lampshade, is nevertheless the place where the fortune of the Rougons is born. And the co-conspirators and self-absorbed fools are as shabby as the surroundings. At one point, Félicité invites her physician son, Pascal, hoping to help him make connections to expand his practice.

For Pascal, the doctor and scientist, the whole human menagerie in the salon has scientific interest, in that it reveals the bestiality of human behavior.
La première fois, il fut stupéfait du degré d’imbécillité auquel un homme bien portant peut descendre. Les anciens marchands d’huile et d’amandes, le marquis et le commandant eux-mêmes lui parurent des animaux curieux qu’il n’avait pas eu jusque-là l’occasion d’étudier.
(The first time [he visited the salon], he was stupefied by the degree of imbecility to which a healthy man could descend to. The old oil merchants and almond merchants. The marquis and the commander struck him as strange animals he hadn’t until then had the chance to study.)

As the only objective observer in the novel, he brings the same curiosity to his own family.
Pascal fixait un regard pénétrant sur la folle, sur son père, sur son oncle ; l’égoïsme du savant l’emportait ; il étudiait cette mère et ces fils, avec l’attention d’un naturaliste surprenant les métamorphoses d’un insecte.
(Pascal fixed a penetrating look at the mad woman, on his father, on his uncle; the egoism of the scientist carried him away; he studied that mother and those sons, with the attention of a naturalist coming upon the metamorphoses of an insect.”

Pascal like Zola contemplates the various branches of the Rougon-Macquart, sees the same patterns, the same characteristics, the appetites pop up different variations as the same plant stock varies in different soil, sun, and water conditions.

There’s no doubt that Zola identifies with Pascal, the country doctor, who will get his own novel in the series. It is the role of the naturalist, the scientific observer that Zola aspires to, and like Pascal, he is fascinated with the behaviors of his characters. The “science” of literary naturalism is pretty bogus; Zola is great because of his art as a describer and a storyteller. Like Pascal, who risks his life treating the rebels without actually signing up with them, and who is more eager to treat the poor than make the bourgeois career his mother pushes him to, at heart a humanitarian as much as a scientist.