Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Balzac, Le Message (1832)

In this novella, the impecunious narrator (clearly a pretty undisguised Balzac himself), climbs onto the impériale, the top, outside seats on a couch heading into the countryside. He is joined by another young blade and they soon fall into an intimacy, after revealing that they both are romancing older, married women.
Enfin, après avoir fait nos maîtresses jeunes, charmantes, dévouées, comtesses, pleines de goût, spirituelles, fines ; après leur avoir donné de jolis pieds, une peau satinée et même doucement parfumée, nous nous avouâmes, lui, que madame une telle avait trente-huit ans, et moi, de mon côté, que j’adorais une quadragénaire.

Finally, after having made our mistresses as young, charming, dedicated, countess, tasteful, witty, fine, after giving them pretty feet, smooth skin and even gently perfumed, we confessed – he, that his Madame X was thirty-eight years old, and I, for my part, loved a forty-year old.
The bonding, based on shared tastes, is immediate.

Suddenly, as the coach nears his destination, it overturns, and as the other man leaps in impatience jumps from the impériale, he is crushed. On his deathbed, he makes the narrator promise to bring his dying message to the mistress he was planning to visit, including returning compromising letters. The narrator also brings a lock cut from the young man’s hair.

He arrives, meets the cuckolded husband, the ravishing wife. E eventually, in a dream-like conversation when she enters his bedroom at night and wakes him, he delivers his friends’ last message, along with the letter, and the lock of hair. The woman secretly managed to give a welcome sum of money to the narrator inn thanks for his deed.

The story itself simple and, for Balzac, the characters just sketched. But the autobiographical links are obvious: Balzac was forever having affair with older married women, exploiting them financially, often several at the same time, The praise of women old enough to be their mothers by young lovers is the high point of the story, and the theme that persists through his fiction (and life).

Balzac, La Grenadière

This 1833 novella is a surprisingly delicate work, which approaches sentimentality but never crosses the line. It's named after a simple but beautiful country house on a hill overlooking the Loire, very close to Balzac’s native Tours. A significant portion of the novella is Balzac’s careful description of that landscape in all its fertile beauty. It is said that he wrote it one night.

What he does in the opening of the work is like a cinematic zoom in to the house in question, from its wider environment to the details of the gardens, the buildings, and finally the interior of the house itself. This, in a way, is typical Balzac, to elaborately dress the scenery before having the protagonists come on stage, and when they do, letting us inspect them from head to toe as well, before they actually open their mouths. Here we have the anachronistic effect of a camera zooming in from an aerial shot, something that I can’t imagine any author doing before Balzac.

The story itself concerns the raising of two sweet brothers in a little Eden and the slow death of their mother, a mysterious beauty. The boys are the fruit of her affair with an English nobleman, but it ambiguous why they were separated or what the issue of the marriage was. In any case, they are cast adrift with little money. Nevertheless, the mother, adored by her children, takes pins to have them educated both scholastically and morally.

The end of the story is sad but not lachrymose. The woman dies in bed after admonishing the elder brother to help the more innocent younger son. The elder enters the navy as a cabin boy, the other son, through whatever money can be scraped together, is sent to a collège in Tours.

The mystery of the story – who is this woman and why is she abandoned, what is eventual fate if the boys – is only partially resolved at the end of the story. The lack of a formulaic narrative solution (for example, the husband arriving at her deathbed, the children inheriting a fortune) makes the story sound like a slice of real life. The rude cross at her simple graveyard reads “CY GIT UNE FEMME MALHEUREUSE, morte à trente-six ans,” (Here lies an unfortunate woman, dead at age 36).

The ending of the novella is cinematic also. The older son stands at the rail of the ship he is assigned to as it sails away from the coat of France.
il regardait les côtes de France qui fuyaient rapidement et s’effaçaient dans la ligne bleuâtre de l’horizon. Bientôt il se trouva seul et perdu au milieu de l’Océan, comme il l’était dans le monde et dans la vie. — Il ne faut pas pleurer, jeune homme ! il y a un Dieu pour tout le monde, lui dit un vieux matelot de sa grosse voix tout à la fois rude et bonne. L’enfant remercia cet homme par un regard plein de fierté. Puis il baissa la tête en se résignant à la vie des marins. Il était devenu père.

he watched the shores of France, which quickly fled and disappeared into the bluish line of the horizon. Soon he found himself alone and lost in the middle of the ocean, as it was in the world and in life.
- Do not cry, young man! there is a God for everyone, said an old sailor in his deep voice at once harsh and good.
The boy thanked the man with a glance full of pride. Then he lowered his head resigning himself to the life of a sailor. He had become [the[ father.
He had become the man of the family, the father he never knew. He is launched.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The horror of the dream world: Nodier’s Smarra (1821)

This novella, with the alternative title of “les Démons de la nuit”, is a nightmare-based tale of horror that has links with German Romanticism and Gothic tales. It prefigures the dream narratives of Théophile Gautier and the Decadent movement later in the century, and anticipates Freud and Jung by a century.

It is also an early vampire story. Already in 1820, Nodier co-wrote a sequel to John Polidori’s pioneering and sensationally popular story “The Vampire”, and also came out with a play with the same title. Both were big public successes, and Smarra offers an even more extreme and dark story.

The narrative itself – said to be opium-induced – has the logic of a nightmare, of a Walpurgis night. That is to say, that time and place keep shifting, endless waves of voluptuousness and bloody cruelty, and logic has no place.

The first-person narrator is Lorenzo, a young man recounts a dream to his half-sleeping mistress. He has dreamed that he is Lucius, a young man of the ancient Roman empire, who, having studied Greek philosophy in Athens, goes to visit Thessaly, famous of its magicians. On horseback and at night, he passes through a haunted forest, loses his way in the labyrinthine underbrush, and falls asleep. His dreams, if they are dreams, are full of sensuality, a synesthesia at first of luxury, then of horror.

Lucius meets his dear and deceased friend Polémon, who recounts his daytime luxury in the afterworld, surrounded by sensuous female slaves, and his nightly blood-drinking torment by monsters, led by the vampiric demon Smarra

Here’s a small sample:
les mille démons de la nuit escortent l'affreux démon … Des femmes rabougries au regard ivre; des serpents rouges et violets dont la bouche jette du feu; des lézards qui élèvent au-dessus d'un lac de boue et de sang un visage pareil à celui de l'homme; des têtes nouvellement détachées du tronc par la hache du soldat, mais qui me regarde avec des yeux vivants, et s'enfuient en sautillant sur des pieds de reptiles...

*The thousand demons of the night escort the horrid demon… Stunted women with a drunken look; red and violet serpents whose mouths spurt fire; lizards who lift a human-like face above a lake of mud and blood; heads newly detached from the body by a soldier’s axe, but who look at me with living eyes, and flee, bouncing on the feet or reptile…)
This prose-poem pits the classical rationality of Lucius/Lorenzo against the irrationality and horror of the dream world. The use of extremely vivid language, dripping with perfume and blood and devoid of rational thought makes Smarra a monument of Romantic fantasy, blurring the line between reality and dream. There’s no pretense at a moral ending; the work just exists

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Henri III et sa Cour: the first Romantic drama

While Hugo’s Hernani, produced by the Comédie Française in 1830, is always accorded the bragging rights as the first successful French Romantic drama, it is in fact Dumas’s Henri III et sa cour (1829) that deserves the pride of place.

The Dumas play, performed in the same theater with some of the same cast, was a major triumph, and it’s full of some of the same elements as Hernani and later Romantic drama (period costumes, over-the-top rhetoric combined with everyday language, violent stage business, humor mixed in with grief).

But Hernani gets the acclaim thanks to three factors:

a) Hugo had proclaimed a theoretical justification for a new drama in his famous Preface to the unstaged (and unstageable Cromwelll Dumas notes in a brief foreword to his play that he has no theoretical pretentions, leaving that to others.
b) Hernani was in verse, in alexandrines yet, a direct attack on Corneille and Racine territory, while Henri III was in prose.
c) Hernani’s opening night witnessed a famous donnybrook between factions in the audience, the upholders of Classicism and Romanticism; Henri III, on the other hand, was acclaimed from the opening act on – including the enthusiasm of the soon-to-be King Louis-Philippe.

Dumas, who had a major theatrical career later eclipsed by his historical novels, was actually a pretty good playwright. Henri III is a little rough dramatically (he was just a rank beginner), but it has some very gripping moments, especially that the scene where the duke of Guise physically abuses his wife into writing the letter that will trap her lover, Saint-Mégrin. This scene, which Dumas in his memoirs tells us caused a palpable sensation. In eth audience, was a move away from the lack of direct onstage action of tragic and sentimental plays of almost two centuries of French drama. Moreover, except for the lover-hero. These are not the noble gentlemen of the heroic era – the king is a weak fool, under the thumb of his mother Catherine De’ Medici, Guise a monster, and the gentlemen of the court, vain fops.

The play is indebted to Othello, a sensation (both cheered and hooted) when English actors led by Kean visited Paris a few years earlier, showing a piece, albeit in a foreign language, that had been seen in the Rossini opera version or, worse, in the denatured adaptation of Ducis – in which, for example, the handkerchief gets replaced by a diadem. (In 1830, Vigny would produce a more literal – Romantic – translation.)

As with Othello, in Henri III a handkerchief is a key element in the jealousy of the husband, though it must be said that Guise is more an Iago than an Othello. The death of Saint=Mégrin (the lover, albeit offstage, resembles Iago’s treacherous attack on Cassio. And Guise’s confrontation with his wife resembles the strangling of Desdemona, though in the Dumas play, the heroine just faints away at the end. This happens as her husband calls out the window to the assassins who have all but killed Saint-Mégrin, throwing them the tell-tale handkerchief to strangle him:
Eh bien, serre-lui la gorge avec ce mouchoir ; la mort lui sera plus douce ; il est aux armes de la duchesse de Guise. :
(Well then, stop up his throat with this handkerchief; death will be all the sweeter for him; it bears the arms of the duchess of Guise/)
Henri III is full of gothic/Romantic trappings: locked doors, astrology, passionate love at first sight, meetings of conspirators, disguises, implacable revenge, a magic talisman. Most of these elements are rearranged and added to in Hernani.

One side issue in the play is the nature of the king’s “favorites”, the elegant young gentlemen who attend him. We know from historical accounts that these favorites, at least some of them, were lovers of the king, who was probably bisexual. And that was well known, if on the sly, by Dumas’s contemporaries. On fact, the censor objected that parents would have difficult time explaining to their innocent children what a “favorite” was. The play presents Henri and his friends as fops and dandies, but no hint of anything beyond that. In his later novel, La Reine Margot, the ambiguous sexuality of the Valois court is a little more in the open.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Balzac, La Bourse (1832)

This urban fairy tale is a pretty minor Balzac novella. Based as it is on a misunderstanding (she steals his purse, he thinks she’s a thief, but she only took it to embroider it). it reads more like Maupassant’s “La Parure” without the keen edge or rather like O. Henry's “Gift of the Magi”, the sentimental American version of Maupassant/

The hero, Hippolyte Schinner, is a newly fashionable painter, not unlike the hero of La Maison du chat-qui-pelote, written a few years earlier. The artist, who is clearly a projection of Balzac, is a tireless late night worker, breathing life into portraits and landscapes through the reproduction of carefully observed detail.

When he visits the apartment of the heroine, the daughter, the only child of am impoverished widow, he looks on to what no painter of that time would yet portray, a kind of genteel squalor.
Aucun peintre de mœurs n’a osé nous initier, par pudeur peut-être, aux intérieurs vraiment curieux de certaines existences parisiennes, au secret de ces habitations d’où sortent de si fraîches, de si élégantes toilettes, des femmes si brillantes qui, riches au dehors, laissent voir partout chez elles les signes d’une fortune équivoque.

(No painter of manners has dared to initiate us, perhaps from shame, into the truly curious interiors of certain Parisian existence, unto the secret of these dwellings ––from which women leave so fresh, so dolled up, so brilliant on the outside –– that inside betray everywhere a precarious financial situation.)
With a painter’s eye, the artist eyes everything (cracks, stains, dust, junked), yet we are told, decently, on the sly. With every detail of decay lovingly catalogued, this is the radical innovation of Balzac – to see the grimy, shoddy world with the idea of a painter is something I can’t imagine any writer more than vaguely sketching squalor before him.

Three other notes:

• The mother is a widow of a Napoleon-era hero, and her claims for a pension were denied after the Bourbon Restoration. It’s no coincidence that after the Revolution of 1830, here and elsewhere, Balzac starts writing with real sympathy for Napoleonic officers and their widows (see Une double Famille).
• Some of the same elements here as with La Maison du chat-qui-pelote. Schinner’s pals, the other artists, lead him to mistrust the mother and daughter, as in the earlier story they make fun of and then reject the innocent, unsophisticated new bride. We don’t see here what happens after the marriage; the story ends with the proposal.
• Like so many Balzac heroes, Schinner – with his Alsatian surname –– is an outsider who is in the process of conquering Paris by dint of genius and hard work. But unlike his counterpart in chat-qui-pelote and unlike a lot of Balzac heroes, he has no pretence at nobility – he is a bastard, the son of the daughter of an Alsatian farmer, seduced by a rich man – not even, it seems, a nobleman.