Thursday, March 25, 2010

Reading and the Internet

I've been reading almost all the French books for the Balzac–Zola project on a computer screen. More specifically, using texts available primarily on Wikisource. That strikes people as odd, unpleasant, even sacrilegious. but I have my reasons.

One is that I can snip sentences with word I don't fully understand and use them on my other blog on French vocabulary here. That's both faster and far more accurate.

Second, and I'll discuss this at some later post, I use a program called Lingro, so that I can instantly click on an unfamiliar word (and there are lots of them in realist fiction) and. in many cases, get an immediate definition in English. If that doesn't work, i have bookmarks on my browser to visit several good French -English dictionaries or online French dictionaries. Otherwise, i would either stop reading entirely to seek a dictionary or pretend that I know –kind of – what a taillis or an essaim is, and push on, both unacceptable.

But the biggest bonus in being online while reading is the instant access to information through Google and/or Wikipedia, a virtual bookshelf that deepens the reading immensely without interrupting it much. For example, when a character in Paris travels from the Chausée d'Antin to Saint-Sulpice, I can see precisely where they are on the map.

But even better is access to background material for cultural references casually thrown off by the author. Hera are two examples from Père Goriot, which I am reading currently.

When Eugène, the hero, gets invited to dine at the house of his cousin, the Vicomtesse de Beauséant, he has to control his amazement at the knavish dinner laid out for the three of them.

Monsieur de Beauséant, semblable à beaucoup de gens blasés, n’avait plus guère d’autres plaisirs que ceux de la bonne chère ; il était en fait de gourmandise de l’école de Louis XVIII et du duc d’Escars.

(Monsieur de Beauséant, like many blasé people, had scarcely any pleasure other than fine dining; in respect to gourmandizing, he was of school of Louis XVIII and the duc d’Escars.)

Louis XVIII I know about a little, along with the Bourbon restoration, and am not surprised to find him a devoté of the table. But the duc d’Escars and gourmandizing? Time to Google. A little reseaching gets us to the following anecdote from an English translation of The Science of Good Living by the famous gastronome Brillat-Savarin.
here .

Louis XVIII. invented a dish called Truffes a la purée d'ortolans. The happy few who tasted this dish, as concocted by the royal hand of Louis himself, described it as the very perfection of the culinary art. The Duc d'Escars was sent for one day by his royal master, for the purpose of assisting in the preparation of a glorious dish of Truffes a la purée d'ortolans; and their joint efforts being more than usually successful, the happy friends sat down to Truffes a la purée d'ortolans for ten, the whole of which they caused to disappear between them, and then each retired to rest, triumphing in the success of their happy toils. In the middle of the night, however, the Duc d'Escars suddenly awoke, and found himself alarmingly indisposed. He rang the bells of his apartment, when his servant came in, and his physicians were sent for; but they were of no avail, for he was dying of a surfeit. In his last moments he caused some of his attendants to go and inquire whether his majesty was not suffering in a similar manner with himself, but they found him sleeping soundly and quietly. In the morning, when the king was informed of the sad catastrophe of his faithful friend and servant, he exclaimed, "Ah, I told him I had the better digestion of the two."
Perfect– that indeed is gourmandizing, and this story was still current with Balzac and must have happened only a few years before the events of the novel. It adds a richness that a footnote could never do.

A litte bit later, Delphine de Nucingen invites the hero to accompany her to her box at the opera, since she had heard he likes Italian opera so much. She writes, "Nous aurons samedi la Fodor et Pellegrini, je suis sûre alors que vous ne me refuserez pas." (Saturday we wick have la Fodor and Pellegrini, I am sure you won't urn me down.

Some famous singers I supposed. I know that la Pasta and la Malibran are big at the time, but these two? A little digging gets me to an online edition of Stendhal's Life of Rossini, and viola!

Of la Fodor, who was the French originator of rôles written by Donizetti and Rossini, Stendhal writes:

madame Fodor ne pouvant pas faire cette cavatine belle, elle la faisait riche. Elle accablait de roulades et d'ornements supérieurement exécutés, les inspirations du maestro, et parvenait à les faire oublier. Voilà un joli triomphe! Rossini, s'il l'avait entendue, lui aurait répété ce qu'il dit au célèbre Velluti, lors de la première représentation de l'Aureliano in Palmira (Milan 1814): Non conosco più le mie arie. Je ne reconnais plus ma musique."

(Madame Fodor, unable to make this cavatina beautiful, made it rich. She overwhelmed the inspirations of the maestro with trills and ornaments masterfully executed, and succeeded in making us forget the original. There wast a pretty triumph ! Rossini, had her heard it, would have repeated to her what he said to the famous Velluti, aftertax premiere of Aureliano in Palmyra (Milan 1814) "I no longer recognize my arias.")
Of "the excellent," Pellegrini,we learn of his beautiful bass voice singing a cavatina from La Cenerentola "d'une manière délicieuse." We also learn that he started a school for Italian singing in Paris and that one of his pupils was la Fodor.

Discoveries like these and temptations (I had to force myself not to read on, at this time, in the Stendhal), are what make the relative discomfort of reading from my wide, bright iMac screen more of a pleasure than a pain. It slows down reading, but in a way that makes the novels all the richer.

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