Madame Bovary – Chabrol

February 20, 2010

In a post several years ago, I commented negatively on Claude Chabrol’s take on Madame Bovary, saying it was too faithful to the book to be interesting.  It seemed a slow-paced, Masterpiece Theater sort of treatment.  On watching it again, I’m not so sure.

A lot of reviewers felt as I did, and the film is not rated among Chabrol’s finest.  Yes, Isabelle Huppert is too old for the character, and her light hair and freckles are not Emma at all, but she’s lovely.  More interesting, is the complaint I read in many places that she, and the film, are too cold, controlled, lacking the sentimental passion of Emma, the passion that destroys her.

Certainly the film is restrained. Consider the scene in which Emma meets her old (Platonic) flame, Léon, in the Rouen cathedral, and he takes her for a ride in a hired cab.  He tells the driver to drive through the streets of the town,  and the citizens of the fair city are left to puzzle over this meandering cab that occasionally rocks back and forth rather wildly.  Inside, rapturous lovemaking.  The action is described in an almost cinematic way, yet the film gives us just this, with one brief glimpse of passion:

Not much for a literary passage that surely inspired the passionate sex-in-the-backseat scene of that masterpiece, Titanic.  The sculptural group on the right in the image above is a nice touch, though.

Still, I think Chabrol is on to something here.  The crucial thing about the novel is the control of tone – a touchstone of Flaubert’s writing.  Emma is shallow and sentimental, and a prey to passion, but it’s childish passion.  On the other hand, she’s an adult, a woman who is trapped in a dull marriage in a dull town in a dull epoch, and it’s not her fault.  Another woman who is the victim of men, and she knows it.  In the film, she comments frequently on things men might do that a woman has no chance of doing.  She sees her situation clearly, and she wants to rebel against it, yet she is fiercely restrained by her own ingrained sense of social propriety. [Compare to Flaubert's other sentimental "hero," Frederic Moreau.]  She was never a wanton bohemian or heedless character, at least not at first.  She must calculate – as a woman, she is always being watched.  In that sense, Huppert’s portrayal is just right.

Emma’s passionate nature is displayed before her marriage.  She has no hesitation at sucking her pricked finger despite the presence of Charles, the doctor.  Later, when their marriage is in the offing, she drinks a liquer with more than the normal relish, sticking her tongue into the glass to get the last drop.  After marriage, as her boredom and disposable income grow, her clothes get more and more elaborate.

On the left, Charles Bovary, the oafish husband.  On the right, Homais, the pharmacist, the man of reason.  His tiresome and superficial political, scientific, and philosophical patter are an ironic counterpoint throughout much of the story.  Even when you share his opinions about the clergy, the gentry, the capitalists, you want to throttle him to shut him up.  His stupid grasping for acclaim leads him to stampede Charles into a foolish and disastrous operation on a well young man who happens to have a club foot that needs “correcting.”

Is Charles the hero of the novel?  In a way, he is.  Only he has genuine, sincere, and deep emotional responses to his situation.  He is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he truly loves Emma, though he can’t make her happy with that.

Emma is tempted by the local notary’s assistant, Léon, a callow and romantic young man who is obviously in love with her.  She seeks spiritual help from the local priest in one of the most powerful passages of the novel.  The priest is absolutely tonedeaf to what ails her.  She has fine clothes, food, fire to warm her – the notion that she could be gravely suffering is totally alien to his mind and he shoos her away to deal with the urchins who must learn their stultifying catechism.  “What is a Christian?”  “One who is born and baptized!”  A fine verbal irony, pointing out the total lack of Christian love that comes Emma’s way in the church.

There’s not much to do if you live in a small French town in 1840, but the local aristocrat gives a grand ball and invites the Bovarys since Charles cured his abscess.   The waltz is absolutely dizzying, especially for a relative novice.  Emma says it was the most beautiful day of her life, and she daydreams about it endlessly.  At least the local draper, always willing to sell on credit, has some beautiful fabrics to show her to occupy her mind.

Rodolphe, a local gentleman and ladykiller shows up just as the town gets to host the annual country fair, a real boost for the place!  He seduces Emma with a steady torrent of romantic cliches and appealing hurt and angst.  Taking a window seat to the official proceedings, his words are intercut with prize awards for pigs, manure, and cows.  The bullshit is flying hot and heavy, and Emma is powerless to resist.  At last, someone who understands her!


They have a passionate love affair, but Rodolphe drops her because she’s becoming inconvenient.  Emma is shaken, but eventually picks up in earnest with Léon, leading to the cab ride and three days of bliss in an hotel room in Rouen.  She throws caution to the wind, and she actually scares her lover a bit, she’s so intense.  Her clothes get sharper and sharper, and the friendly merchant always has fancy stuff to sell on credit.  Finally he comes up with some promissory notes to sign and tells her to keep all the cash for now.  She can pay him pack later.  You can see the thought balloon above her head, filled with lists of things to buy.

It had to end.  The bills come due.  The bailiffs come to take back all the stuff in the house.  Notices are posted in the square – dishonor and utter humiliation await her, unless she can get 3,000 francs fast!  Won’t the draper help her out with a stay of a few days?  Her hand on his knee gets no results – he cares for francs, not fucking.  Was she really willing to do that with him? She is appalled at his insinuations, and at herself?

Of course, Rodolphe, he will help her!  He must help her!  She runs across the fields to his mansion – so difficult to do in the female costume of the day.  Standing outside his bedroom door, she is out of breath and desparate, but composes herself.

She opens the door.  “Oh, it’s you!”  There she is, in the mirror, smaller than the man of course.  She is only what she is in mens’ eyes.  Maybe she can rekindle their old love – they will run away together, of course.  She is so beautiful!

Building castles in the air is fine, but there is the matter of those 3,000 francs.  Rodolphe sees how it is, and he’s having none of it.  Cooly he tells her, “I don’t have it.” Surrounded by the accessories of wealth, in a mansion, on an estate, Emma finds it hard to believe him.  The awful truth dawns on her.  Nobody cares, nobody loves her.  She is alone.

She escapes by poisoning herself.  Charles loves her.


Eugénie Grandet

February 10, 2010

This little tale from Balzac’s scenes of provincial life is one of my favorites, having a simple plot anchored by a character of monumental greed and miserliness, Old Grandet.  He has amassed a fortune in land, farms, shares, and wooden casks of gold coins that he loves to gaze upon, but he lives like a simple workman with not a centime to his name.  His good wife and lovely daughter, Eugénie, are completely dominated by his tyrannical personality.  Eugenie has never known any other life, and hardly dreams that one is possible, let alone that she is an heiress to millions.

Into this small town darkness flashes the meteoric path of Charles, Grandet’s nephew, whose father killed himself to escape the shame of bankruptcy.  Charles visits his relations in Saumur at his father’s direction, not knowing why, and learns the awful truth from his uncle.  He is a rich, spoiled, foppish dandy, but he is truly despairing when he learns of his father’s end, and he resolves to remake his fortune in the West Indies.  But first, through a few secret interviews, he and Eugénie fall in love.  To help him on his way, Eugénie gives him her entire life savings, a bag of gold coins, resolving to wait for him forever, blissfully enslaved to the only true love she has ever known.

Charles sails away, and Grandet finds out about Eugénie’s absolutely foolish, blasphemous action with her gold.  Initially, he punishes her by locking her in her room on a diet of bread and water.  The mother’s health fails, the town gossips, and the two top families scheme to get their sons married to Eugénie.  Charles grows rich trading slaves, and becomes corrupt and miserly – Eugénie is orphaned.  Charles returns to France and feels obligated to write Eugénie a “Dear Jane” letter so he can proceed to marry into a decrepit but prestigious noble family with a clear conscience.  Eugénie marries one of the sons, but insists that she remain a virgin, and lives a life of humility, austerity, and generous charity.  Her husband never gets to enjoy his wife’s wealth; he dies young.  Charles is shocked to learn that the pretty cousin he jilted, the one who lives in poverty in the country, is far more wealthy than he – he calculated wrong!

Such is the plot – another French tale of sharp provincial dealing and financial chicanery – of which Balzac is a master.  It is the character and psychology of Old Grandet that makes it an epic of obsession and sexual repression.  Grandet seems hardly human, a mass of granite, and completely devoid of feelings.  He drives hard bargains always, and only shows delight and humor when he manages a particularly crafty financial triumph.  He has a wen, a cyst or wart, on his nose that is his principle indicator of internal passion – it becomes inflamed and pulsating when he is agitated or angry.  The symbolism is obvious.

Eugénie, his daughter, is a beautiful young woman who is practically living the life of a nun, married, in bondage, to her father and his gold.  He gives her gifts of coins on special occasions, but his gifts come with strings.  He asks now and then to view the coins with her -”Go and bring your coins, girlie. Looking at them warms me up.”  His use of the diminuitive is unsettling – Eugénie is a fully grown and lovely woman.  The coins give him heat and life: money is always something supernatural in Balzac, and here it is the life-sexual force itself.    There is nothing else for Old Grandet.  Locked in his office, gazing at his barrels of gold, Grandet is like a boy ashamed of his sexual longing, hiding himself away with his favorite girlie magazines.  At one point, he exclaims: “You ought to kiss me on the eyelids for telling you the secrets and mysteries of the life and death of money.  Really, coins live and swarm like men’ they come and go and sweat and multiply.”  Such are the facts of life according to Monsieur Grandet. Swarming, multiplying, sweating…only gold lives.  It’s the only sex education Eugénie gets.

When Eugénie gives Charles her coins, he gives her a golden casket of his mother’s in return, to hold for him in trust, promising to repay her the value of her coins.  Eugénie and her mother, who sympathizes with her, delight in looking at the box, rehearsing their memories of the handsome cousin, now far away.  Upon learning of this exchange, Old Grandet leaps upon the casket “like a tiger” and begins clawing it, almost destroying it to get some goldwork that he can sell to recoup her idiotic squandering of her treasure.  Eugénie tries to stop him, shouting that the cask is neither hers nor his, it is only held in trust against Charles’ return and repayment of the  loan of her coins.  Grandet shoves her aside, hurting her, and cries, “Why were you looking at it if it was given you in trust?  Looking is worse than touching.”

Ah, yes, the looking!  His gloating over his coins has an element of sexual looking, voyeurism.  This is more explicit when, after punishing his daughter with house arrest, he fumes and walks in his garden, but can’t resist looking at her as she mournfully brushes her hair at her windowsill.  His gaze is filled with anger, love, paternal and avaricious, and sexual?  The scene made me think of this painting by Thomas Hart Benton and the story of Susanna and the Elders – young women wronged by crude, dirty old men.  When Eugénie tries to evade his requests to see her gold in order to forestall revealing what she did with it, Old Grandet wheedles:  “Listen, Eugénie, you must give me your gold.  You won’t refuse your old daddy, will you girlie, eh?” sounding like a increasingly frustrated pedophile with a recalcitrant intended victim.

Eugénie, disappointed in love, agrees to marry only to procure a service from her notary-suitor that will rescue the honor of that cad, Charles, and with the stipulation that she remain a virgin.  Her fate reminds me of Zeus impregnating Danae with a rain of golden coins – another woman done wrong by gold.


Enron and the dung heap…

January 20, 2010

After finishing Zola’s novel, Money (L’Argent), one name comes to mind – Enron.  It’s the same story!  Saccard, the infatuated market manipulator is Ken Lay, or maybe his more intelligent cronys who did the real work.  The hysterical run up of the market to fantastic stock prices, the fraud, the cooked books, the government winking and looking the other way, the grand infrastructure projects, and the inevitable crash that brings the house of cards to a pile of paper, and reduces thousands of people, many of them ordinary workers, to penniless, shell-shocked victims.

The book contains a few scenes in which Sigisimond, a fanatical Marxist, dying of consumption, and racing to commit to paper his world-saving vision for the New Society, converses with Saccard, the rapcious capitalist, and other characters.  He is clearly delusional and religious in his socialist faith – Zola was a liberal, but no revolutionary utopian – a sort of cockeyed, would-be Christ besotted with the Enlightenment.  Saccard just can’t get a purchase on his ideas – they seem to be speaking in different tongues.  The book ends, however, with this Sigisimond dying after relating his celestial vision to a more sympathetic figure, Madame Caroline.

Caroline’s brother was Saccard’s chief engineer, and truly believed in the mission of his Universal Bank.  Brother and sister deplored the financial chicanery, but eventually went along.  They sold early, before the crash, but gave away their profits out of guilt.  The brother is convicted along with Saccard in the post-crash scandal, although he was actually not culpable. 

Caroline is a voice of conscience throughout the novel, but she loves Saccard!  Their affair is broken off when he moves onto more glamorous and richer women, but he retains feelings for her.  Why does she love this shark, this brigand, this fraud, this man who will ruin so many?  Because…he is passionate, he does truly believe in his schemes, he is a life force. 

At the end, Caroline meditates on money, that filthy stuff that corrupts and destroys, and which drives Saccard and others to do prodigious things.  Saccard understands her misgivings, but he has an answer:  money is like the dung heap, and from that manure springs…LIFE.  It’s like sex, you see, it may be dirty, but without it, there is no love, and no life.  What an interesting combination of ideas!

Et Mme Caroline était gaie malgré tout avec son visage toujours jeune, sous sa couronne de cheveux blancs, comme si elle se fût rajeunie à chaque avril, dans la vieillesse de la terre. Et, au souvenir de honte que lui causait sa liaison avec Saccard, elle songeait à l’effroyable ordure dont on a également sali l’amour. Pourquoi donc faire porter à l’argent la peine des saletés et des crimes dont il est la cause? L’amour est-il moins souillé, lui qui crée la vie?  [conclusion of L'Argent]

My very inexpert translation:

Madame Caroline was gay despite herself, her face was looking young beneath her crown of white hair, and she was rejevenated as each April brings life to the old earth.  And, recalling the shame she felt about her affair with Scaccard, she thought of the awful dung heap that is like the soiled elements of love.  Why should one put all the blame and dark crimes on money?  Love, is it any less sullied? Love, that creates life?


Money!

January 12, 2010

L’argent (Money), the 18th in Zola’s massive chronicle of France under the Second  Empire, finds Saccard scrambling to get back in the game, trying to put behind him the disasters that came after The Kill.  His is a world of financial chicanery – let’s say outright fraud – practiced on a colosal scale, pretty much in the open and with the benevolent neglect of Napoleon III’s ministers, of which Saccard’s brother is one.  As with Sebastian Melmotte and Bernard Madoff, the intent is to generate enthusiasm for a stock issue, hysteria if possible, rake in the cash, and put it away before the great crash comes.  Sound familiar..?

Saccard waxes grandiloquent as he allays the moral scruples of the adorable sister of the engineer whose great plans for the East he wishes to employ as the basis for his giant house of cards.  She is upset that he isn’t following the financial code to the letter.  She fears for the “little people” who will be crushed by his scheme, but after all, you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs, right?  In the passage below – no English version on the web – he gives vent to his empassioned devotion to the cause of money, as opposed to the Old Economy of landed wealth. 

«Mais, madame, personne ne vit plus de la terre…. L’ancienne fortune domaniale est une forme caduque de la richesse, qui a cessé d’avoir sa raison d’être. Elle était la stagnation même de l’argent, dont nous avons décuplé la valeur, en le jetant dans la circulation, et par le papier-monnaie, et par les titres de toutes sortes, commerciaux et financiers. C’est ainsi que le monde va être renouvelé, car rien n’était possible sans l’argent, l’argent liquide qui coule, qui pénètre partout, ni les applications de la science, ni la paix finale, universelle…. Oh! la fortune domaniale! elle est allée rejoindre les pataches. On meurt avec un million de terres, on vit avec le quart de ce capital placé dans de bonnes affaires, à quinze, vingt et même trente pour cent.»  L’argent

My inexpert translation here:

But, Madame, nobody lives on land anymore!…The ancient estates are an obsolete form of wealth that have lost their reason for being.  They just let wealth stagnate, the weath which we throw into circulation with paper money and with all those commercial bits of paper that financiers create.  This is how the world will be renewed, but it isn’t possible without money, liquid money that flows about and penetrates everywhere – not the application of science nor universal peace!  Oh, those old landed estates!  They’ve gone the way of stagecoaches.  A person dies with a million in land, but with just a quarter of that, placed to good use, at fifteen or twenty-five percent, he lives!

Saccard is also a jew-hater.  Zola treats us to an internal monologue in which he retails all the usual negative stereotypes of Jewish money-men that rattle around Saccard’s brain.  It’s an amusing irony because those qualities are precisely the ones that define Saccard himself, while the successful Jews he meets, and resents, are portrayed, at least in the beginning, as gentle and reasonable people.


When did Paris become romantic?

December 22, 2009

When did Paris get to be the city of romance and of young lovers?  No doubt, the photographs of Robert Doisneau had something to do with it.  Is it a post WWII phenomenon?  I think of Paris for the period before that as being the city of loose women, artists, intellectuals, free-wheeling nightlife, but not exactly romance.  As the WWI song went,

How ya’ going to keep them down on the farm,
after they’ve seen Gay Pa-ree?

This referred to all those rural American doughboy soldiers who’d gotten a taste of Sodom’s delights while on leave in the big city.  And before that, during the Second Empire and the fin de siècle, Paris was the city of sin, lust, greed, wild financial wheeler-dealing, whores and nightclubs, drugs and absinthe, “ballet” dancers for purchase by rich sybarites, and plunging décolletage.  Not exactly the stuff of…romance.

And then there’s the Paris of brutality and political insurrection.  The bloody suppression of the Commune, the revolutions in the streets of 1830 and 1848, with barricades and hand-to-hand fighting.  Looming over it all, the Big One, The French Revolution of 1789, and the ensuing Terror.  Again, not too much romance there.

People talk about how beautiful Paris is, as if the urban plan and the regular facades of the streets exude loveliness and, of course, romance.  More and more, when I think of Paris, I think of its reconstruction under Napoleon III and Hausmann, the ruthless demolition of neighborhoods, the eviction of thousands, the fraud, the corruption, and the waste incurred during the pell mell rebuilding of the city in Napoleon’s image until his ignominious exit in 1871.  The long avenues and the open circles seem to me the marks of authoritarian planning, a dictatorial City Beautiful [in America, urban renewal was called by some negro removal; in Paris, it would have been worker removal] all of which has been imitated by dictators of various intellectual calibers since, from Romania to the Ivory Coast.

I guess I’ve been reading too much Zola.  I was surprised to find how many of his novels deal with precisely this topic, the rebuilding of the city.  The Belly of Paris and The Kill are two that come to mind immediately.  And as for décolletage, he documents it in several texts, most tellingly here where he is describing not a prostitute or courtesan, but a society lady:

When Renée entered the room, a murmur of admiration greeted her.  She was truly divine…her head and bodice were done up adorably.   Her breasts exposed, almost to the nipples…the young woman seemed to emerge stark naked from her sheath of tulle and salin… [more here]

Does the objectification of woman get any more explicit?  Romance?..  A few images from now and then…

   

    

The Wild Ass’s Skin (Peau de chagrin)

November 8, 2009

kicking up a storm

The Wild Ass’s Skin is the weirdest novel by Balzac I’ve read to-date.  It was his second major novel in his vast Human Comedy, and it features several characters who reappear later in the series, albeit not always in a consistent manner. In it, we have Balzac’s pseudo-science, fascination with magic, some romanticism such as I’ve never read in his work, the usual thrilling and cynical dissection of social structures, and sex portrayed with an abandon and explicitness from which he usually refrains.

The premise of the plot is magical:  A down on his luck, impoverished aristocrat, Raphael Valentin, looses his last coin gambling, and resolves on suicide.  To pass the time until an opportune moment arises, he visits a vast antiques shop and meets its strange proprietor.  He is shown a strange piece of leather, an ancient scrap of an ass’s skin, embossed with eastern script.  The skin has the power to grant him his every wish, but each time it does so, it shrinks, and with it, so does the lifespan of Valentin.  Another twist on the old theme of making a deal with the Devil.

The novel also has three parts, and they don’t seem to fit together all that seamlessly.  The first part describes Raphael’s coming into possession of the magical skin and his first orgy; the second is an extended flashback describing his impoverished life while he was in love with a completely heartless and drop-dead gorgeous society woman; and the third describes his agonizing descent to his inevitable end.

At one point, Valentin enlists the help of the greatest scientists in France to see if they can stretch the skin back to its original size, after he has grown fabulously wealthy by its power, and watched horrified as it diminished in size.  The great mechanical engineer gives a discourse on Pascal, motion, and hydrostatic pressure, and then watches stupefied as the skin resists the force of his engines and causes them to explode under the strain.

“Between each point in space occupied in succession by that ball,” continued the man of science, “there is an abyss confronting human reason, an abyss into which Pascal fell.

A chemist is nonplussed, and can find nothing to make the slightest change in the skin.  At a forge, in a scene that seems a combination of Joseph Wright and John Martin, the men try to incinerate the hide, but it emerges from the flames cool and untouched.  The scientists have a laugh – the mysteries of the universe never end!  Raphael is not amused.  He visits some doctors to see if they can determine why his life force is ebbing away, but they just argue amongst themselves.

“What is the good of science?” Raphael moaned. “Here is my recovery halting between a string of beads and a rosary of leeches, between Dupuytren’s bistoury and Prince Hohenlohe’s prayer…Shall I live? They have no idea. Planchette [the engineer] was more straightforward with me, at any rate, when he said, ‘I do not know.‘”

When Raphael first takes possession of the skin, he wishes to be at a stupendous banquet and orgy – and then he sees the skin shudder and shrink a bit.  Next thing we know, he is whisked to a phenomenal debauch by two friends he stumbles upon in the street.  The tale is one of Balzac’s philosophical studies, and it dissects the psychology and practice of excess and orgies,  depicting them with great realism and in detail.

His chandeliers had been filled with wax-lights; the rarest flowers from his conservatory were carefully arranged about the room; the table sparkled with silver, gold, crystal, and porcelain; a royal banquet was spread–the odors of the tempting dishes tickled the nervous fibres of the palate. There sat his friends; he saw them among beautiful women in full evening dress, with bare necks and shoulders, with flowers in their hair; fair women of every type, with sparkling eyes, attractively and fancifully arrayed. One had adopted an Irish jacket, which displayed the alluring outlines of her form; one wore the “basquina” of Andalusia, with its wanton grace; here was a half-clad Dian the huntress, there the costume of Mlle. de laValliere, amorous and coy; and all of them alike were given up to the intoxication of the moment.

His only salvation from an early death is to arrange his life with mechanical regularity so that he need never give rise to an utterance of “I wish that…” and so never invoke the power of the skin.  He becomes a recluse.  His faithful servant, fearful that he is wasting away, and minding the doctor’s orders to “keep him interested…” arranges a special treat for him which he at first takes for one of his opiated dreams:

As Raphael’s death-pale face showed itself in the doorway, a sudden outcry broke out, as vehement as the blaze of this improvised banquet. The voices, perfumes, and lights, the exquisite beauty of the women, produced their effect upon his senses, and awakened his desires. Delightful music, from unseen players in the next room, drowned the excited tumult in a torrent of harmony–the whole strange vision was complete.

Raphael felt a caressing pressure on is own hand, a woman’s white, youthful arms were stretched out to grasp him, and the hand was Aquilina’s. He knew now that this scene was not a fantastic illusion like the fleeting pictures of his disordered dreams; he uttered a dreadful cry, slammed the door, and dealt his heartbroken old servant a blow in the face.

Contrasted with this infernal decadence, there is the scene he encounters when he flees to the mountains, searching for a serene resting place in which to live out his days without desires:

As Raphael reached the place, the sunlight fell across it from right to left, bringing out all the colors of its plants and trees; the yellowish or gray bases of the crags, the different shades of the green leaves, the masses of flowers, pink, blue, or white, the climbing plants with their bell-like blossoms, and the shot velvet of the mosses, the purple-tinted blooms of the heather,–everything was either brought into relief or made fairer yet by the enchantment of the light or by the contrasting shadows; and this was the case most of all with the sheet of water, wherein the house, the trees, the granite peaks, and the sky were all faithfully reflected. Everything had a radiance of its own in this delightful picture, from the sparkling mica-stone to the bleached tuft of grass hidden away in the soft shadows; the spotted cow with its glossy hide, the delicate water-plants that hung down over the pool like fringes in a nook whereblue or emerald colored insects were buzzing about, the roots of trees like a sand-besprinkled shock of hair above grotesque faces in the flinty rock surface,–all these things made a harmony for the eye.

Such a romantic, pastoral scene, so unlike Balzac’s usual settings of village interiors or urban apartments.  And in the two locales, he encompasses the twin extremes of Romanticism:  the diabolic, and the idyllic.

In the end, Raphael is united with Pauline, who loved him when he was poor, and now that he is rich, has herself come into a fortune.  They live together, planning to be married, and Balzac describes their lives together as one of erotic bliss, although Raphael is doomed.  When Pauline realizes Raphael’s situation, she resolves to kill herself so that they can die together:  there is a frenzied embrace, he bites her breast violently! – is it consummated? .. and they die.

Not surprising that Balzac loved the novel Melmoth the Wanderer.


Fiasco II – The horror, the horror…

October 31, 2009

The Commune - a familiar scene these days too...

I finished Zola’s novel The Debacle, and I feel as if I barely survived.  The book is absolutely harrowing in its depiction of the horror, gore, and sheer terror of war.  The graphic detail – heads blown off, entrails flying, hideous and ghoulish atrocities – are the sort of thing we expect in movies and books about war today, but in the 1890s?  I wonder if this marked a first.

Zola, of course, was known for doing his research, and he visited locations, interviewed scores of participants, and reviewed the literature.  In many ways, the book reads as an historical chronicle as much as a novel.  But it soars, or descends, into great, infernal poetry in scenes such as the days immediately after the disastrous defeats, when Jean and Maurice, solid peasant and educated bourgeois, fight for life in the great charnel house and prison that the countryside has become inside the Prussian encriclement.  The apocalypse seems to have arrived – corpses exploding and stinking, the river choked with dead men and animals, and wild herds of lost and starving cavalry horses charging madly about, destroying everything in their path in a frenzy of hunger and madness.

The deadly bitterness of occupation and civil strife are depicted as well. The murderous fury of the French against the collaborators recalls scenes I dimly remember from Marcel Ophul’s film, The Sorrow and the Pity.  (I went to see that with my parents as a kid – hardly understood any of it – but boy, did it make an impression!)  The bloodlust rises to epic stature as one woman conspires to murder the father of her child, watching as the guerillas truss him up, slit his throat, and bleed him dead like a great pig.

At the end, Maurice, now a crazed and fanatical communard, and Jean, fighting with the forces of reaction, simply because he wants everything to be gotten back in order so he can return to the land, meet again in a Paris that is recapitulating the Fall of Babylon.  An orgy of destruction, madness, and atrocious murderous rage is burning itself out.  Zola was a liberal who detested left-wing revolutionaries.  He tries to fathom in Maurice how an educated man could throw his lot in with such people as a result of the deep humiliation of the war, the frantic desire to destroy everything in the hope that something better will replace it, and the end-game of months of war, besiegement, hunger, and isolation:

Just previous to the 31st of October Maurice was more than usually a victim to this malady of distrust and barren speculation. He listened now approvingly to crude fancies that would formerly have brought a smile of contempt to his lips. Why should he not? Were not imbecility and crime abroad in the land? Was it unreasonable to look for the miraculous when his world was falling in ruins about him?

And so Maurice went on leading an idle, vagabondish sort of life, in a state of constant feverish agitation. He had ceased to be tormented by hunger; he devoured the first white bread he got with infinite gusto; but the city was a prison still: German guards were posted at the gates, and no one was allowed to pass them until he had been made to give an account of himself. There had been no resumption of social life as yet; industry and trade were at a standstill; the people lived from day to day, watching to see what would happen next, doing nothing, simply vegetating in the bright sunshine of the spring that was now coming on apace. During the siege there had been the military service to occupy men’s minds and tire their limbs, while now the entire population, isolated from all the world, had suddenly been reduced to a state of utter stagnation, mental as well as physical. He did as others did, loitering his time away from morning till night, living in an atmosphere that for months had been vitiated by the germs arising from the half-crazed mob. He read the newspapers and was an assiduous frequenter of public meetings, where he would often smile and shrug his shoulders at the rant and fustian of the speakers, but nevertheless would go away with the most ultra notions teeming in his brain, ready to engage in any desperate undertaking in the defense of what he considered truth and justice. And sitting by the window in his little bedroom, and looking out over the city, he would still beguile himself with dreams of victory; would tell himself that France and the Republic might yet be saved, so long as the treaty of peace remained unsigned.

from the Project Gutenberg text:  The Downfall

Karl Marx, and revolutionaries everywhere, revered the Commune, but the picture that Zola paints of it is of a disorganized, opportunistic, delusional, and fanatical group of die-hards who reduced the city of Paris to ashes.  Not that he thinks well of the forces of reaction either.  Ultimately, they serve the masters who brought on the entire debacle, by starting the war with Prussia.

In the end, France will have to be rebuilt, born anew, as in his great novel Germinal, through the simple and unstoppable drive to live and flourish in peace that Jean, the simple peasant, represents.


FIASCO!!

October 26, 2009

Napoleon III - Emperor of the French

File this under incompetent leaders of great states, right next to George W. Bush: 

The Paris of today that everyone dreams about was given to us in the 1860s and 70s by this man, Napoleon III, and his civil servant, Baron Haussmann.  His reign began in liberal democratic enthusiasm, progressed to despotism by way of coup d’état, and ended in dismal, utter, spectacular, and mind bogglingly stupid failure. 

He was manipulated into provoking a war with Prussia, convinced he would win in a walkover.  Bismarck, Prussia’s leader, couldn’t have asked for a more pliable victim.  The military catastrophe is chronicled in the first part of Zola’s book, The Debacle.  thousands of desparately hungry, exhausted soldiers marching to and fro over the French landscape, despondent and demoralized as they realize that they are being led by a gang of complete idiots. 

Think of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 without the wild hilarity, and you’ll have a notion of what I’m reading now.  In the film, The Life of Émile Zola, there is a scene early on in which the general staff is incensed at Zola about this book – they are out to get him. 

After the disaster came the Paris Commune, with its murder, insurrection, and brutal suppression.  Then, as time heals all wounds, socialist, communist, and liberal came together across their political differences to slake their thirst for revenge (la revanche!)  against Germany.  Much to the consternation of some leftists, dreaming of international solidarity, the worker’s parties supported France’s lunge into WWI – the time to regain lost territory had come at last.  More lambs to the slaughter.


Can’t buy me love!

September 30, 2009

Ladies!  There's plenty for all of you!

Around the corner from the entrance to my office is the Century 21 Department Store, certainly one of the most popular tourist destinations in New York after the World Trade Center site -  with the slogan “Fashion worth fighting for! ”  I go there regularly on my lunch hour to consume and keep myself in high-quality slacks, shoes, and haberdashery without breaking my bank.

The image of frenzied women clawing over tempting fabrics and clothes is at the center of Zola’s novel, Ladies Delight (Au Bonheur des Dames), the story of a hugely successful department store c. 1880, and an amazing novel in many ways.  It is a tale of the swaddling days of consumerism, commodity fetishism, commodification – the whole array of cultural-crit jargon.  Here it is, laid out:  advertisement, loss leaders, seductive product displays, free giveaways, ominbuses with huge posters, mega-sales, fads-fashion-and novelty; the economics of price wars, driving the small shops on “main street” under the wheels of the big malls, and on and on.  It’s so familiar, you wonder if there ever was a world without shopping centers!

Mouret is the dynamic, handsome, hedonistic, creative volcano at the center of the huge machine that is his department store, the shop, as the employees call it.  He has his pick of the sales girls – any would give themselves to him for the thrill of it and the money he’ll throw their way – and a society mistress as well.  He is a font of new ideas for selling, marketing, creating desire, creating need, creating new products, new sensations!  The daily takings climb steadily towards the landmark figure of 1,000,000 francs!

The sales workers are a frenzied competitive lot – backbiting and driven.  This job is their chance to make something for themselves, perhaps of themselves.  They are dismissed en masse at a dip in weekly sales, and many come from lives of unrelenting urban or rural poverty.  The feminine protaganist arrives this way, and the trials of her incredibly difficult life during her early days in Paris are related in detail.  Then she “goes over to the other side,” as her uncle, the doomed proprietor of an old fashioned fabric shop calls it, and she goes to work for the infernal machine.

Many women in Zola’s novels are the equal of their male counterpart, and this novel relates a long duel of hearts between Mouret and Denise.  She is proud, quiet, her personality is based on a rock-solid and austere self-respect.  She withstands poverty, the gossipy and vile sniping of her fellow sales girls, and exhaustion to rise within the sales staff hierarchy.  Gradually she wins them over, and Mouret, noticing her excellent good sense and employing her ideas, begins to fall for her.  She worships him, adores him, and everyone assumes he’s already bedded her, but she maintains her “virtue.”  She does this not out of sentimental notions of what a good girl is, but because she fears that to give herself to him would end up with her being cast off when he tires of her, leaving her emotionally ruined and desolate.  She is right.

Mouret, for his part, a man who built his life on women, on controlling with cold calculation their whims and desires, on exploiting them for their money and their erotic attributes, on taking an Olympian and disdaining view of them, that sorry herd of females who jam his shop and make him rich – Mouret feels himself suffering the revenge of Woman.  The Eternal Feminine is breaking him.  Denise will not yield, no matter how much money he offers, no matter what he offers!  In the end, he submits, he begs her to marry him.  She accepts, realizing that their duel has humanized him.  He realizes he cannot buy love, and it is love he wants.  Male and female are reconciled.

The book is filled with detailed discussions of how the shop works, how accounts are kept, how the machine of consumption is kept on its well-oiled track.  It also has endless discussions of textiles that are utterly bewildering to me – I don’t know what most of them even look like.   In a nice twist, the final drama before Denise accepts Mouret involves a store detective catching an arrogant society lady stealing lace and gloves.  All are slaves to the machine, rich and poor.

The shop is depicted as the personification of Woman, of Woman’s erotic allure, of superficial desire, of inhuman capitalism, of modern life.  Here are a few samples:

The silk department was like a great room dedicated to love, hung with white by the whim of a woman in love who, snowy in her nudity, wished to compete in whiteness.  All the milky pallors of an adored body were assembled there, from the velvet of the hips to the fine silk of the thighs and the shining satin of the breasts.

. . .

 In the silk department there was also a crowd, the principal crush being opposite the inside display, arranged by Hutin, and to which Mouret had given the finishing touches. It was at the further end of the hall, around one of the small wroughtiron columns which supported the glass roof, a veritable torrent of stuffs, a puffy sheet falling from above and spreading out down to the floor. At first stood out the light satins and tender silks, the satins a la Seine and Renaissance, with the pearly tones of spring water; light silks, transparent as crystals— Nile-green, Indian-azure, May-rose, and Danube-blue. Then came the stronger fabrics: marvellous satins, duchess silks, warm tints, rolling in great waves; and right at the bottom, as in a fountain-basin, reposed the heavy stuffs, the figured silks, the damasks, brocades, and lovely silvered silks in the midst of a deep bed of velvet of every sort—black, white, and coloured—skilfully disposed on silk and satin grounds, hollowing out with their medley of colours a still lake in which the reflex of the sky seemed to be dancing. The women, pale with desire, bent over as if to look at themselves. And before this falling cataract they all remained standing, with the secret fear of being carried away by the irruption of such luxury, and with the irresistible desire to jump in amidst it and be lost.

. . .

In the lace department the crush was increasing every minute. The great show of white was there triumphing in its most delicate and dearest whiteness. It was an acute temptation, a mad desire, which bewildered all the women.  The department had been turned into a white temple, tulles and Maltese lace, falling from above, formed a white sky, one of those cloudy veils which pales the morning sun. Round the columns descended flounces of Malines and Valenciennes, white dancers’ skirts, unfolding in a snowy shiver down to the ground. Then on all sides, on every counter, was a stream of white Spanish blonde as light as air, Brussels with its large flowers on a delicate mesh, hand-made point, and Venice point with heavier designs, Alen9on point, and Bruges of royal and almost religious richness. It seemed that the god of dress had there set up his white tabernacle.


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