Thursday, November 18, 2010

Balzac's Les Chouans

Les Chouans (1829) is Balzac;s first real novel; it is about one of the numerous rebellions against the post-revolutionary French Republic in Brittany. The Chouans, named after the chouette (owl) whose call they use a signal, are at the same time Royalist, very Catholic, and very savage.

While the principal character, the Marquis de Montauran, an aristocrat, could the hero of a sentimental novel, his followers are ready to murder, rape, and torture with the utmost cruelty, all encouraged by priests, who see the Revolution and its troops as Satanic.

In fact, what the Chouans resemble, more than anything, are the wild Indians of the New World, to whom Balzac openly likens them:
Marche-à-terre, qui semblait posséder le don de voir dans l’obscurité, ou dont les sens continuellement en mouvement devaient avoir acquis la finesse de ceux des Sauvages, avait entrevu Corentin ; comme un chien bien dressé, peut-être l’avait-il senti.

Marche-à-terre [a Chouan guerilla], who seemed to have the gift of seeing in the dark, or whose continually active senses had to have acquired the keenness of the Savages, had glimpsed Corentin; like a well trained dog, maybe he had sniffed him out.
The novel is in part an homage to James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, published just three years before, and translated rapidly into French. As with Les Chouans, the Cooper novel is a tale from recent history of the clash of cultures, of organized government troops against daring irregulars, built around a central romance inn the Walter Scott vein between a man and woman on opposite sides.

This is a beginner's effort, and quire distant from the Balzac of La Peau de chagrin so soon to be published (1831). In its unevenness it resembles the occasionally exciting and sometimes wooden Last of the Mohicans. It is at its best in describing the details of peasant life in Brittany, where Balzac has made a tour before writing the book. His close observation of domestic life and the landscape outshines the intrigue.

Again like Scott, Mérimée, Hugo, and Cooper, like all Romantics, it gets its energy from the savagery so close-at-hand and so recent. For the French readers, this was like have Chateaubriand North American savages set down only 200 miles from Paris. Pretty soon, Balzac will discover the savages are in the back streets and the drawing rooms of Paris itself.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Balzac's "Madame Firmiani"

"Madame Firmiani" (1932) is a rather minor short story. It is based on two mysteries, both of which are uncovered at the end.

First, there is Madame Firmiani, a mysterious woman of uncertain martial status, but accepted into society. We see her at first only obliquely, through the opinions of over a dozen observers, a few admiring, many more spreading contradictory rumors. That long introduction is a little narrative tour-de-force, a deviation from the omniscient narrator of most of Balzac's fiction.

The hero, Oscar, is a young aristocrat who has apparently squandered his fortune and also appears to have a liaison with Mme. Firmiani. How and why he has ended up living in a garret teaching lessons is buzzed about, and it reaches his unclad benefactor, who undertakes to come to Paris to straighten things out.

In the end, the apparent scandal turns out to be quite the opposite. Oscar has been shamed into paying back the fortune that his father got through fraud, restoring the income of an impoverishing family. The mysterious Mme. Firmiani, who advised him to make good his father's crime, has been waiting until her husband's death abroad is confirmed and her inheritance clear. She arrives triumphantly to rescue Oscar from the garret and marry him.

Probably the most noticeable aspect of the story is a familiar Balzac obsession – both in life and in fiction, Namely, the affair between the richer, older married woman and the brilliant but penniless youth with aristocratic pretensions. In the story, as so frequently in Balzac's life, the financial embarrassments of the young man are cleared by the loving older woman.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The battle of the Fats and the Leans

The artist Claude Lantier, the most sympathetic character in Zola's Le Ventre de Paris, explains to Florent, the protagonist, that there is a battle being fought between the Fats (almost all the members of the community of Les Hslles) and the lean outsiders like Claude and Florent). the refusers of try feats.

Claude takes off from a description of a set of engravings (by Breugel?)
Est-ce que vous connaissez la bataille des Gras et des Maigres ? demanda-t-il. Florent, surpris, dit que non. Alors Claude s’enthousiasma, parla de cette série d’estampes avec beaucoup d’éloges. Il cita certains épisodes : les Gras, énormes à crever, préparant la goinfrerie du soir, tandis que les Maigres, pliés par le jeûne, regardent de la rue avec la mine d’échalas envieux ; et encore les Gras, à table, les joues débordantes, chassant un Maigre qui a eu l’audace de s’introduire humblement, et qui ressemble à une quille au milieu d’un peuple de boules. Il voyait là tout le drame humain ; il finit par classer les hommes en Maigres et en Gras, en deux groupes hostiles dont l’un dévore l’autre, s’arrondit le ventre et jouit. - Pour sûr, dit-il, Caïn était un Gras et Abel un Maigre.

Are you familiar with the the battle of the Fats and the Leans? he asked. Florent, surprised, says that he didn't. Then Claude became enthusiastic, spoke about this series of engravings with high praise. He cited certain episodes: The Fats, ready to burst, sitting down for the evening pig-out, while the Leans, doubled over by fasting, watch with envy from the street with their rail-thin faces, and next the Fats, at table, with overflowing cheeks, chasing away a Lean who had the audacity to enter humbly, one who resembles a candlepin in the middle of a population of bowling balls. It takes in the whole human drama; it ends up by classifying humanity into Lean and Fat, two hostile groups, the one devouring the other, to filli its stomach and enjoy. -- For certain he says, Cain was a Fat and Abel a Lean.
All of this fits in with the action of the novel. Claude states that the Fats hate even the sight of the Leans, witness Florent's treatment by the fishmongers, who act like cats driving out a mouse. That Florent is little interested in money and even less in eating more than he needs to survive marks him out as an enemy of society.

The idealistic socialism that Florent adopts is an indictment of the conspicuous consumption the Second Empire. And it is a theme that recurs in Zola. In La Curée, there is a remarkable scene of the piggishness of the noveaux-riches, who at a ball at the Saccard house, attack the buffet with stomach-turning piggery, so that even the servants are put off. As we will seine La Conquête de Palssans, the gluttony of the priest is seen as consuming the household, eating the protagonist and his family literally out of house and home. And in La Fortune des Rougon, it is Macquart's perpetual hunger that makes him resent the food on his own children;s plates as well as the (imagined) well-supplied table of the Rougons. His egotistical cries of revolution is nothing but the resentment of the Leans against the Fats is sen as a political issue.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Appetite and indigestion in Le Ventre de Paris

The greet paradox at the heart of Zola's Le Ventre de Paris is that between the hero. F;orient, who lives in a state of disgust and the crushing superabundance of food surrounding him. Florent. who arrives in the book and in Paris, fainting from starvation, ends up being welcomed into the Cloud-Cuckoo Land of the Quénu charcuterie, where the greasy taste, feel, and smell of fat has seeped into everything. As Zola puts it, "tout un monde noyé dans la graiss" (an entire world drowning in fat.).

And in spite of being well fed by his brother and sister, Florent remains hungry throughout the novel, refusing to fit in with the plump, gourmand company that surrounds him:
Non, la faim ne l’avait plus quitté. Il fouillait ses souvenirs, ne se rappelait pas une heure de plénitude. Il était devenu sec, l’estomac rétréci, la peau collée aux os. Et il retrouvait Paris, gras, superbe, débordant de nourriture, au fond des ténèbres

No, hunger had not left him . He searched his memory, could not remember one hour of fullness. He had become dry, with a shrunken stomach, his skin stuck to the bone. And he found Paris, fat, proud, overflowing with food, to be un the depths of darkness.

When he is given a seafood inspector's job in the market, his disgust gets even stronger.:
Florent souffrit alors de cet entassement de nourriture, au milieu duquel il vivait. Les dégoûts de la charcuterie lui revinrent, plus intolérables. Il avait supporté des puanteurs aussi terribles; mais elles ne venaient pas du ventre. Son estomac étroit d'homme maigre se révoltait, en passant devant ces étalages de poissons mouillés à grande eau, qu'un coup de chaleur gâtait. Ils le nourrissaient de leurs senteurs fortes, le suffoquaient, comme s'il avait eu une indigestion d'odeurs.

Florent suffered then from this pile of food, amid which he lived. The disgusts from the charcuterie came back, more intolerable. He had endured stenches as terrible, but these did not come from the belly. His narrow, skinny man 's stomach rebelled, as he passed the wet fish stalls, drenched in water, spoiling from a bout of hot weather. They fed him their strong scents suffocated him, as if an attack of indigestion hiy him from just smelling
This attitude is met with incredulity among those whose life is the preparation and sale of food, essentially everyone in the novel and especially his brother and sister-in-law, who exude the fat of their trade. His very thinness becomes a point of disgust among the other inhabitants of the Halles and, by implication, that of Second Empire Paris.

His alientation from most of those around him and his attitude toward food eventually enters into his politics – where his disgust at the material world fits in well with his unhinged, utopian socialism.

The only person who can at all sympathize with Fkorent's indigestion is the painter Ckuade Lantier, who loves the market for its rich colors of its contents, subjects for his still-life, nut who also has little appetite.
Puis, je déjeune ici, par les yeux au moins, et cela vaut encore mieux que de ne rien prendre. Quelquefois, quand j’oublie de dîner, la veille, je me donne une indigestion, le lendemain, à regarder arriver toutes sortes de bonnes choses. Ces matins-là, j’ai encore plus de tendresses pour mes légumes… Non, tenez, ce qui est exaspérant, ce qui n’est pas juste, c’est que ces gredins de bourgeois mangent tout ça !

Then I break my fast here –– at least through the eyes, and that is been better than eating anything. Sometimes when I forget to dine the night before, I give myself indigestion the next day by watching all sorts of good things arriving. Those mornings, I have even more affection for my vegetables ... No, look, this is frustrating, what is unjustness
that these bourgeois scoundrels eat it all!"

But what Claude converts into art, Florent converts into anger and desire for a political purge of the excess.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Anatomy of the Belly

Zola's Le Ventre de Paris (1873), the third novel in the Rougon-Macquart series, is a mix of two distinct genres of prose fiction. First. there is a pretty straightforward novel, where the protagonist (Florent), escapes from imprisonment in Devil's England, gets a job through family connections in the Les Halles, and after getting caught up in a socialist conspiracy, is arrested and sent off again.

The second stream in the book is what Northrop Frye in His Anatomy of Criticism (1957) termed "anatomy". Among other things, literary anatomies take delight in cataloguing and describing the features of the world around it. If novels are aimed at describing the social world, anatomies dwell on the objects that make up the material world.

Le Ventre de Paris is an in-depth portrait of the newly upgraded central food market, literally from top (the glass and cast iron roofing) to bottom (the sub-basements),. a prose poem delighting in vivid descriptions and long lists of the goods on sale. The tour ranges from a loving look at the contents of the Quénu charcuterie to the sights and and smells of the market for fresh-and salt-water fishes. It includes in-depth visits to the vegetable sellers, the fruiterers, the florists, the cheese sellers, the butchers, the bakers, and so on.

Part of this description is painterly. We see in part through the eyes of Claude Lantier, an avant-garde (Cézanne-like) painter who will figure as the hero of his own book later in the series (L'Oeuvre). We are meant to see vividly the colors, the shimmering of the goods, even in the darkness of pre-dawn and the shimmering of gas-light.

But Zola engages all our senses: smells (both pleasing and putrid but mist notable in the so-called "Cheese Symphony"), tastes (blood sausage to carrots), textures (as the various workers get their hands in the products they make prepare and serve), and noises (the early-morning cacophony, the bustle and gossip of the workers).

For the non-native reader, the vocabulary mountain is high, and while one might be tempted to skip over the various fishes or sausages, the fact is that the poetry, and the point, is in the details. This poem – which has no logical beginning pr end, run in parallel with the more traditional narrative of Florent's modest rise and fall.

The tone is Rabelaisian, both in terms of the wide and concrete vocabulary, and the sense of connection to the real, multi-sensory word, both wondrous and nauseating -- after all, the belly is at the center of both Gargantua and Le Ventre de Paris. Zola reintroduces the Rabelaisian into French literature.