Sunday, May 30, 2010

Tamango (1829)

“Tamango”, a short story by Prosper Mérimée is a big surprise. This narrative of a rebellion on a slave ship doesn’t preach – it simply presents a powerful, simple narrative of what happened on the ironically named L'Espérance, captained by the also ironically named Ledoux. What's striking is not the criticism of the hypocrisy, venality, and cruelty of the white slave trader, but the equally critical portrait of Tamango, the leaser of the slave rebellion.

Tamango is no noble savage. He is himself as “a famous warrior and seller of slaves”, the deliverer of other Africans to the white slave ships from his West African fortress. In the midst of a drunken negotiation with Ledoux, he starts killing slaves with a pistol and even sells one of his wives. He ends by being tricked on the ship as it is leaving and us put in chains, Ledoux thinking that such a strong powerful slave could be sold for a thousand crowns.

All the horrors of the slave ships, now familiar to us, but at that time certainly little known, are revealed: the crowded below-decks, the manacles and chains, the liberal use of the whip, the sexual exploitation and humiliation of the slaves. The slaves finally manage to steal a small file, and, lead by Tamango, plot their move. They rise as one and slaughter the much smaller white crew and have a wild celebration, only to realize that they are on a ship on the middle of the ocean with no knowledge of how to steer it anywhere, let along return home.

They drift, the sun beats down, they run out food and water, and all die but Tamango, who is about to breathe his last just as an English frigate happens across the devastated ship. Tamango is brought to Kingston where, although the plantation owners want him hung as a rebel, the Governor of Jamaica frees him, and gives him a job in a regimental band (as a cymbalist). He soon drinks himself to death.

What's amazing about this story is its lack of authorial moralizing, its matter-of-factness in the face of such horrors. What a contrast with the stories popular at the time: tales of horror, Romantic historical tales, and moral fairy tales. Even Balzac cannot keep himself from moralizing, especially in his earlier writings.

Curiosly, Tamango was made into a film in 1958 in France, starring Dorithy Dandridge and Curt Jurgens. It was filmed simultaneously with French and English, but given its interracial sex, it had a hard tiem getting shown in the US. It remains, as I’ve read, a cult classic. One strange hange – the made the French Ledoux into a Dutch captain.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Balzac, “Le Grand d’Espagne”

This story, Balzac’s second contribution to the collection Contes bruns, is a pretty typical tale of jealousy and revenge, Spanish style. In atmosphere it reminds me of Hernani, staged a few years before, in the way it turns on the inexorable search for revenge by a Spanish grandee.

But Balzac already in this slight work has a mastery of story telling and perception of detail that are striking.

The story takes place at a soirée attended by a group of French officers, many of them heading for Spain some time around 1823’s, shortly after the French invasion prop up the Spanish Bourbon monarchy (the despicable Ferdinand the VII).

The narrator, who is headed to Spain, notes an odd member of the party, a man he takes for a some minor bureaucrat, dressed in green (the narrator detests green, and black, he thinks, is called for), a man who has little steel buckles on his shoes, in pkace of the fashionable knotted ribbon, worn-out pants, a cravate poorly tied.

He turns out to be a military surgeon, who had served in Spain with Napoleon’s troops some year earlier, who tells his tale. The narrator shows his editorial hand in the recounting.
Pour vous sauver l'ennui des digressions, je me permets de traduire son histoire en style de conteur, et d'y donner cette façon didactique nécessaire aux récits qui, de la causerie familière, passent à l'état typographique.

To spare you the boredom of digressions, I am allowing myself to translate his story in the style of a raconteur, and to lend it that didactic manner necessary for tales that pass from familiar chats to the typographic state.)
In other words, Balzac is keenly aware of the levels of narration he is playing eiyj, an wants us to be aware of them, too, like the magician who can give awayteh trick and still fool us.

The surgeon’s tale involves a kidnapping and blindfolding, a delivery of a child in secret and under duress, a cloaked mysterious figure, guards drugged, a severed arm, and a near deadly stabbing.

One of his auditors derides the story as a “conte brun", a dark atle, a tale of horror. But just a tale, Then, at the party arrive the grandee and his (one-armed) wife, recent refugees from the Spanish troubles.

And it is so typical of Balzac that in painting the scene is refers to a painter:

C'était un vrai tableau de Murillo! Le mari avait, sous des orbites creusés et noircis, des yeux de feu. Sa face était desséchée, son crâne sans cheveux, et son corps d'une maigreur effroyable.

(It was truly a painting by Murillo! The husband had, beneath the hollowed and blackened orbit, eyes of fire. His dried-out face, his hairless skill, and his body, terrifyingly thin. )
Even the auditors in the story pooh-pooh its melodramatic conventionality. But Balzac is Balzac, even in a trifle.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Une Conversation entre onze heures et minuit

“Une Conversation entre onze heures et minuit” is a story from Contes Bruns, a collection of stories to which Balzac contributed two, the others being written by the now little-known Philarète Chasles (critic and historian) and Charles Rabou (journalist). It appears that the collection was originally published anonymously.

The story in question here is surprisingly experimental. It consists of an overheard conversation in an elegant drawing room filled with ladies and gentlemen. It consists of a set of “can-you-top-this” anecdotes contributed by a variety of speakers. These little stories concern such subjects as jealous husbands, war atrocities, prison escape, suicide of a pregnant woman, and tales of executions.

The model for this pattern of storytelling is the Decameron and its many offshoots, where a miscellaneous set of narrated stories )Some naughty, some tragic, some suspenseful) are strung together by the comments and reactions of a set of genteel listeners. But what Balzac does here is to have the little stories, many filled with real emotion and striking details, just peter out in a rushed conclusion, trampled over in many cases buy the eagerness of the next story teller.

This is an unusual touch. The excitement here is in the spinning of ever new tales, not in any moral reflection or carefully plotted dénouement. In this way, it resembles a realistic party conversation where endings are trampled over as the buzz of conversation marches on.

What I was reminded of was experimental 20th century narratives like Cortazàr’s Hopscotch (1963) or Calvino’s If on a Winter Niight a Traveler (1979) that play with the expectations of narrative. To be sure, “Une Conversation enttre onze heures et minuit” is hardly as problematic, but it certainly shows the young Balzac very consciously playing with the tools of his craft and the reader’s expectations.

One particular tale gets truly meta. One of the storytellers, a man, tells of how, as a young boy, he found himself unnoticed and privy to a conversations between “eight or nine” worldly women (duchesses and countesses) , discussing matters that mostly went over his head, but which fascinated him nevertheless.

J'étais resté coi en entendant ces dames raconter, sotto voce, des histoires auxquelles je ne comprenais rien; mais les rires de bon aloi qui terminaient chaque narration avaient piqué ma curiosité d'enfant.

(I remained quiet while listening to these ladies tell, sotto voce, stories of which I understood nothing; but the genuine laughter which ended each narration piqued my childish curiosity.)

When one lady, whose turn it is, tells the story of her wedding night, or rather, the way in which a she, as a very young innocent held in a convent before marriage, was told by a sympathetic nun about the realities of men and women and the wedding night. At the crucial (presumably salacious) moment of the narrative, we are denied satisfaction:

Là, le groupe féminin se rapprocha, madame de... parla à voix basse, les dames chuchotèrent et tous les yeux brillèrent comme des étoiles; mais je ne pus entendre de la réponse de la religieuse que deux mots latins, employés par la belle dame, et qui étaient, je crois: Ecce homo!...

(Then the female group gathered together, Madame de … spoke in a low voice, the ladies whispered, and all eyes sparkled like stars; but I could make nothing out of the nun’s answer except for two Latin words used by the beautiful lady, and which were, I believe “Ecce homo!’)

The narrator is toying with us, with the layers of overheard stories in a piece of fiction all about overheard stories. Like the child in the salon and like his listeners in the main story, we are eager to hear some naughty details. We are disappointed at the crisis, and the next story begins.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Balzac’s “L’illustre Gaudissart” (1834)

"L'illistre Guadissart" id a pretty slight anecdote in the tradition of the country rubes putting one over on the city slicker. The master travelling salesman Gaudissart who can sell anything to anyone, it seems, makes the mistake of wandering into the countryside around Tours, Balzac’s home town. The Tourangeaux, we are assured, are famous for their love of practical jokes and their disdain for Parisians. And Gaudissart is persuaded to sell subscriptions to a left-wing journal, to a certain landowner, who, if he can be won over, it is claimed, will be imitated by everyone else in the region. The sale almost seems too easy to the smooth-talking Gaudissart, who also agrees to take some wine off the landowner at a good price.

He is informed by his laughing innkeeper that the landowner is in fact the village lunatic. Furious, he winds up challenging the man who fooled him, all of which ends in a comical duel and reconciliation.

Just a few observations: Gaudissart represents a truly new man, whose presence in life and in fiction will expand exponentially with the advent of the railroad. The growth of the middle-class, the expansion of the products, culture, and ideas of Paris and its luxuries, and the at-least partial invasion of both modern capitalism and socialism ]into the provinces are all major engines of the century. The fast-talking salesman is the harbinger of these changes.

And Balzac describes the traveling salesman a veritable Prometheus,
Le Commis-Voyageur n'est-il pas aux idées ce que nos diligences sont aux choses et aux hommes ? il les voiture, les met en mouvement, les fait se choquer les unes aux autres ; il prend, dans le centre lumineux, sa charge de rayons et les sème à travers les populations endormies. Ce pyrophore humain est un savant ignorant, un mystificateur mystifié, un prêtre incrédule qui n'en parle que mieux de ses mystères et de ses dogmes.

(The commercial traveler! Is he not to the realm of ideas what our stagecoaches are to men and things? He is their vehicle; he sets them going, carries them along, rubs them up with one another. He takes from the luminous centre a handful of light, and scatters it broadcast among the drowsy populations of the duller regions. This human fire-bearer is a scholar without learning, a juggler hoaxed by himself, an unbelieving priest of mysteries and dogmas, which he expounds all the better for his want of faith.)
Second, critical to the story is the conflict between the natural conservatism of the countryside and the radical Saint-Simonism of Paris. Henri de Saint-Simon, even in the reactionary years of the Bourbon restoration, publish his socialistic crutique of society, most notably in Le Nouveau Christianisme (1825). By 1830, the cult of Saint-Simonism was at its height, and it is the Globe of that griup that Gaudisssart, who sees it as just another product to sell in place of stockings, more profitable for his superior salesmanship,.

Finally, outwitting the city-slickers is a also big part of Eugénie Grandet, located in the same area. Père Grandet’s a financial whiz, but play-acts deafness and obtuseness, and use steh vanity of his sophisticated adversaries to trick them. Peasant cunning figures in Zola. in Maupassant, in Stendhal, where country folk play dumber than they are, to trick the self-important.
L'Illustre Gaudissart devait rencontrer là, dans Vouvray, l'un de ces railleurs indigènes dont les moqueries ne sont offensives que par la perfection même de la moquerie, et avec lequel il eut à soutenir une cruelle lutte. A tort ou à raison, les Tourangeaux aiment beaucoup à hériter de leurs parents. Or, la doctrine de Saint-Simon y était alors particulièrement prise en haine et vilipendée ; mais comme on prend en haine, comme on vilipende en Touraine, avec un dédain et une supériorité de plaisanterie digne du pays des bons contes et des tours joués aux voisins, esprit qui s'en va de jour en jour devant ce que lord Byron a nommé le cant anglais.

(The illustrious Gaudissart was fated to encounter here in Vouvray one of those indigenous jesters whose jests are not intolerable solely because they have reached the perfection of the mocking art. Right or wrong, the Tourangians are fond of inheriting from their parents. Consequently the doctrines of Saint-Simon were especially hated and villified among them. In Touraine hatred and villification take the form of superb disdain and witty maliciousness worthy of the land of good stories and practical jokes,—a spirit which, alas! is yielding, day by day, to that other spirit which Lord Byron has characterized.)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Vigny breaks loose

As noted in the previous post, Vigny starts really feeling his oats as a poet in the late 1820’s – and we will see that Hugo does the same thing at the same time.

I won’t go much into the famous “Le Cor” (1825), the anthology piece about the battle of Roncesvalles that I still remember from reading in high school – back when 4th year high school French was founded on an anthology with samples from Baudelaire, Hugo, Verlaine, Mallarmé, and the rest. The verse is still in the format of alexandrines, but it is often broken and textured, not plodding. And the sadness – even if it for long-ago mythic heroes – seems a bit more genuine.

La Frégate La Sérieuse” (1828) tells the tale of the captain of a French frigate, which sails the seas between France and India, then is sunk at Trafalgar. It's a vivid account of something within his readers’ living memory. The verse forms are varied, often anapestic, but a real turn away from alexandrines. The phrasing in the action of the battle is short, gripping, and full of nautical specificity.

Trois vaisseaux de haut bord — combattre une frégate !
 Est-ce l'art d'un marin ? le trait d'un amiral ? 
Un écumeur de mer, un forban, un pirate, 
N'eût pas agi si mal !
Three ships of the line – in combat with a frigate!
Is that the art if a sailor? the trait of an admiral?
A skimmer of the seas, a freebooter, a pirate,
Wouls have acted so evilly
This poem has broken free from both the proprieties of the older poetry and also from medievalism. It’s a really strong poem.

Then there’s one poem that strikes me as the masterpiece of the Poèmes antiques rt modernes: “Paris” (1831), and is it ever modern. The vision of Paris as a both the amazing hub of the world and a kind of blazing inferno on earth reminds me of Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” and looks ahead to Baudelaire prophetic take on the city.

The poem is written as a guided tour (flying?) high above the nighttime city. Looking down on Paris and taking its measure is a trope that keeps repeating itself in French ; literature through the 19th century: Eugène de Rastignac in Père Goriot, and Aristide Saccard in Zola’s La Curée come to mind.

The city is a hellish furnace, we are guided to see:

Or ou plomb, tout métal est plongé dans la braise,
 Et jeté pour refondre en l'ardente fournaise.
 Tout brûle, craque, fume et coule ; tout cela
 Se tord, s'unit, se fend, tombe là, sort de là,
 Cela siffle et murmure ou gémit ; cela crie,
 Cela chante, cela sonne, se parle et prie
Gold or lead, every metal is plunged into the embers
And thrown to be melted down in the blazing furnace,
Everything burns, crackles, smokes, and flows; all of that
Twists, unites, splits, falls here, runs out there,
It whistles or murmurs. It cries
It sings, it sounds, speaks to itself, prays.

To me, this poem is a giant step from Vigny’s earlier poems. Like the furnace, it melts away and reshapes the old – in terms of language, poetic form, intense passion, and dark, sensual, and mighty diction. It also nails the concept of Paris as the both the leader in a new age of industrial and social reformation, along with the city as a stage for suffering and inner darkness, all of which will be theme of so much post-1830 literature.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Vigny and Byron

OK. I’ll admit it. I have little taste for most French poetry. Particularly the stuff written between Racine and Baudelaire. The weight of tradition, of good taste, of bienséance, weighs down on all poets in that century and a half, and even a very talented one like Vigny have to overcome a lot to begin writing poems that strike me as enjoyable/masterful.

To me, alexandrines seem utterly empty in any but the most masterful hands (Racine). They give me the impression of a well-worn road with deep ruts. With the limits of poetic vocabulary, the rhymes are all so predictable (“cerceuil”, “deuil”, and ”linceuil”,;“ivresse” and “tendresse; “nuages” and “orages”) and the sentiments feel formulaic.

While, in general, the 18th century is a poetry train wreck through most of Europe, in Germany, poetry explodes in the 1780’s and 1790’s with Goethe, while English poetry in the 1790’s with Wordsworth, Coleridge and Blake. The floodgates opened with Tieck, Novalis, Hölderlin, Eichendorff and company in Germany, and with Byron, Keats, and Shelley. French poetry lags far behind.

Take Alfred de Vigny’s Poèmes antiques et modernes, published first in 1826, but containing some later works, up to the annus mirabilis of French romanticism, 1830. Vigny is a talented poet, but he is hobbled by tradition through most of the works written before the late 1820’s.

The book, as the title implies, takes subject matter from ancient sources (Biblical and classical) as well as modern, which primarily means mediaeval. And there is a constant attempt to break out, In "Moïse" (1822) Moses is a Miltonic/Byronic ego/force of nature:m who declare st God:
J’impose mes deux mains sur le front des nuages
 Pour tarir dans leurs flancs la source des orages J’engloutis les cités sous les sables mouvants ;
 Je renverse les monts sous les ailes des vents
Forgive the awkward translation:

I set my two hands on the face of clouds
To dry up from their flanks the source of storms
I engulf cities in drifting sand
I overthrow mountains with the wings of wind.
The sentiments are the Promethean rodomontade of Romanticism, but the words and the verse fall a little flat of the ideas. Let's kook at a Biblical-era Byron poem, “The Destruction of Sennacherib”(1817) for contrast:

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,

And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed; 

And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill, 

And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

The anapestic tetrameter – the same basic pattern as an Alexandrine – but so full of life. This metric pattern is relatively unusual in English, and maintaining without sounding sing-songy it is a feat. (Compare, for example: “The Night Before Christmas”), For me, Byron gets energy and passion, by contrasting concrete everyday words with poetic diction. I think his poetry has bite, crunch, pace, directness, attributes that doesn’t come through in "Moïse".

Vigny, who was well aware of Byron and might well have read this well-known poem, strains after a Byronic tone, but he has to break the chains of Enlightenment verse to do it. We’ll look next at some of his more successful poems.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

La Canne of M. de Balzac (1836)

La Canne de M. de Balzac is a curious little book that breaks the limits of several genres. It starts as a kind of urban picaresque novel.

The hero, a newcomer to Paris, tries in vain to get a position. The joke is that this competent, well-educated, unassuming fellow has two big handicaps: his absurdly romantic name –Tancrède Dorimont–and second (and more important), he is drop dead gorgeous, so much so that his instantly taken for a fop, a dandy, a seducer of wives, mothers, and daughters, un belliatre, un miriflor. The plot of the beginning of the novel indicates how that very handsomeness, which he thinks an advantage, is seen as a threat to each of his potential employers.

In the second half of the book, Tancrède ends up marrying an innocent country girl who has some reputation as a poet – on some level, a typical courtship romance.

But the novel is overall a fantasy store of the Arabian Nights variety, thanks to the eponymous cane of Honoré de Balzac. Our hero, frustrated after his ill-success in finding employment, goes to the Opera. There his eyes fall upon this massive (phallic, we would say) cane, “sorte de massue, des turquoises, de l’or, des ciselures merveilleuses” (a sort of club, decorated with turquoises, with gold, and with marvelous engravings). When he asks another audience member, who is the man carrying the cane and he learns it is the famous author Balzac (who was at point of his early fame, with Eugénie Grandet, La Peau de chagrin. and Père Goriot recently published.

It turns out the cane is magical, and allows the user, by switching it to the left hand, to become invisible. One thing leads to another, and Tancrède eventually is allowed to borrow the cane. He uses it to sit in on a government meeting – and make lots of money in the stock market based on inside information. He spies on a would-be mistress. He loses the cane and "hilarity ensures" when other, unknowingly, switch it to their left hands. And finally he visits, uninvited and unseen, a poetry reading by Alphonse de Lamartine and meets the girl. He follows her invisibly, making her believe she is fantasizing about an ideal, handsome lover. Finally they marry and he gives the cane back to Balzac.

All pleasant but pretty minor. The book does not really give s much of a role to the two famous, non-fictional characters, Balzac and Lamartine, but the mixture of real, living persons with fictional ones has to be something of an innovation.

The discovery of the cane leads to a consideration of Balzac’s new-fangled realism:
M. de Balzac, comme les princes populaires qui se déguisent pour visiter la cabane du pauvre et les palais du riche qu’ils veulent éprouver, M. de Balzac se cache pour observer ; il regarde, il regarde des gens qui se croient seuls, qui pensent comme jamais on ne les a vus penser ; il observe des génies qu’il surprend au saut du lit, des sentiments en robe de chambre, des vanités en bonnet de nuit, des passions en pantoufles, des fureurs en casquettes, des désespoirs en camisoles, et puis il vous met tout cela dans un livre

(M. de Balzac, like those princes of popular fable who disguise themselves in order to visit the cabins of the poor and the palaces of the rich whose lives they want to experience, M. de Balzac hides himself in order to observe; he watches; he watches people who think they are alone, who think in ways that one has never seen them think; he observes geniuses who his surprises as they leap from bed, feelings in dressing gowns, vanities in night bonnets, tantrums in night caps, and despair in negligees., and then he puts all of that in a book, for you.)
A joke of course, but a real indication of the wonder of Balzac’s acuity of understanding of a wide range of people and their private lives, a big break from both sentimental and gothic novels that precede it. Unfortunately, La Canne de M. Balzac does not even begin to approach Balzac.

By the way, the author, Mme. de Girardin (née Delphine Gay) saw some success as a romancer, dramatist, and poet, and she held a salon where, Balzac, Gautier, Hugo, and Musset were guest. She was married to a well-known journalist and politician, Émile de Girardin.