Tag Archives: French fiction

‘Paris’ by Émile Zola

Image source: scan of personal copy

Paris is the last volume in the Three Cities trilogy and was first published in 1898. After the struggle I had with the previous volume, Rome, (see here and here) I did wonder if I would ever finish the trilogy; but I have. Even the first volume in the series, Lourdes, was a bit of a struggle. The main character throughout the series is the Abbé Pierre Froment, a priest who no longer retains his faith, and although Zola makes us sympathise with Froment’s predicament we know right from the start that he will end up leaving the church; it just takes so bloody long for it to happen. The whole series is seriously flawed, in my opinion, Lourdes would have worked better as a piece of journalism, Rome should have been abandoned completely, although a short story could possibly have been salvaged from it, and Paris, which was the best of the three, would still have worked better without Pierre’s struggle with his faith.

Paris opens with Pierre agreeing to take some alms from Abbé Rose to a former house painter, called Laveuve, who is on the verge of starving to death. Abbé Rose is being watched by his superiors as his persistent alms-giving is starting to annoy the church hierarchy. Pierre agrees to take the few francs to the man and visits Laveuve in his working-class slum. Pierre witnesses many scenes of poverty which Zola describes ruthlessly. Pierre enquires with a family as to the whereabouts of Laveuve, whom they know as ‘The Philosopher’. Pierre eventually locates him in a nearby hovel.

Here, on a human face, appeared all the ruin following upon hopeless labour. Laveuve’s unkempt beard straggled over his features, suggesting an old horse that is no longer cropped; his toothless jaws were quite askew, his eyes were vitreous, and his nose seemed to plunge into his mouth. But above all else one noticed his resemblance to some beast of burden, deformed by hard toil, lamed, worn to death, and now only good for the knackers.

Pierre not only delivers the alms from Rose but he also spends the rest of the day trying to get Laveuve admitted into the Asylum of the Invalids of Labour by using his connections with the wealthy people on the board of the organisation. Zola here presents the high-society of Paris, particularly the Duvillard’s family and friends; the Baron Duvillard is a banker involved in an African Railway scheme and his wife, Eve, does at least want to help Pierre. But he’s passed around from person to person, none of whom are willing to help him directly. In the end all his efforts are in vain as Leveuve dies before any decision can be made. He is disgusted with himself that he had allowed his hopes to rise once again, to hope that he could actually help people with charity, and as a result his doubts return.

He had ceased to believe in the efficacy of alms; it was not sufficient that one should be charitable, henceforth one must be just. Given justice, indeed, horrid misery would disappear, and no such thing as charity would be needed.

Pierre is then witness to an act of terrorism as he notices a man, Salvat, whom he had seen when visiting Laveuve, meet Pierre’s brother, Guillaume. Salvat walks away to the Duvillard’s mansion, followed by Guillaume, who is followed by Pierre. Pierre watches Salvat enter a doorway and is soon seen running from the building; Guillaume enters the building and there follows an explosion. Pierre helps his injured brother get away and lets him stay at his house to recuperate. The only casualty of the bomb is a young servant girl.

Pierre and Guillaume, who had been estranged, now become better acquainted and Pierre gets to know both Guillaume’s family and his revolutionary friends. Guillaume is a chemist who had been working on a new explosive and Salvat had managed to pilfer some of this when he was working briefly for Guillaume. The rest of the novel now concentrates on Pierre’s complete disassociation with the church and his appreciation of Guillaume’s scientific and atheistic outlook on life. Pierre is completely astonished and then smitten by Guillaume’s fiancée, Marie, who seems to embody the best of this new, more open, outlook to life. Now that Pierre has lost his faith in God he seems to find a new faith in some sort of scientific positivism, whereby all the problems of the world are going to be solved by socialism, science and work. This was no doubt close to Zola’s personal views but it certainly seems to be highly unrealistic to a modern reader. I wonder how the contemporary reader would have found these arguments? It is strange that all the political talk about socialism and anarchism concentrates on Saint-Simon, Fourier, Proudhon et al. rather than Marx, Engels, Bakunin et al.; it’s almost as if a hundred years of political thought meant nothing to Zola.

There is a lot more in this novel as well; there’s the manhunt of Salvat as well as his public execution; the threat of terrorism; there’s Zola’s look at bourgeois society and its decadence at the end of the nineteenth century by portraying political, financial and moral corruption; there’s the joys of cycling (for men AND women); the joys of marriage and fatherhood. Unusually for Zola this novel has a very positive, almost utopian, ending, predicting the downfall of Catholicism and the rise of Science and Justice.

Therein lies the new hope—Justice, after eighteen hundred years of impotent Charity. Ah! in a thousand years from now, when Catholicism will be naught but a very ancient superstition of the past, how amazed men will be to think that their ancestors were able to endure that religion of torture and nihility!

I wonder what Zola would have made of the world today?

The novel ends with the whole family looking out over a Paris bathed in golden light from the setting sun. Marie holds up her son, Jean, to look at the sight, promising him that he’s going to reap the benefits that Science and Justice are going to bring. Jean would be aged sixteen in 1914.

This was cross-posted on the Reading Zola blog.

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‘So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood’ by Patrick Modiano

modiano-isbn9780857054951So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood is my first experience of Modiano; it was originally published in 2014 as Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier. It is Modiano’s most recent book so it may not be the best place to begin with an author’s work but there was something about the beginning of the book that appealed to me; it begins with an ageing author, Jean Daragane, receiving a phonecall from a stranger who claims to have found Daragane’s address book. Straight away this reminds me of the first story in Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, called City of Glass, a favourite story of mine by a favourite author. Both stories are quite similar at first but Modiano has a different approach than Auster and a different type of story unfolds.

The phonecall is from Gilles Ottolini, who claims to work at an advertising agency. He not only wants to return the address book but he wants to meet Daragane and quiz him about one of the names in the book, Guy Torstel. Daragane, who is a bit of a recluse, is apprehensive from the start; his first impression of Ottolini is that he has ‘a dreary and threatening voice’ and ‘the tone of a blackmailer’. When he meets Ottolini, and his girlfriend Chantal Grippay, nothing dispels this feeling that he is going to be blackmailed. Gilles has a ‘dossier’ on Jean that he claims to have obtained from the police. He also claims to be writing a piece on the murder of Colette Laurent in 1952 and believes that information about Torstel may help with his enquiries. At this point the story starts to change into a different story than was originally intimated. Gilles no longer appears directly in the story as Jean is now approached by Chantal, who photocopies Gilles’s dossier and warns Jean that she is scared of Gilles and that Jean should be scared too. The noirish aspect now dissolves away partly as the story concentrates on Jean trying to remember Guy Torstel and other events from his past. The novel now flips between three time periods: a period when Jean was about seven years old, a period when Jean had published his first novel, Le Noir de l’été, and the present-day (2012).

n.b. although there isn’t much of a plot to give away, if you’re planning on reading this then you may wish to skip the next few paragraphs and rejoin with last paragraph.

Both Gilles and Chantal appear as stereotypical low-level hoodlums out on the hustle. We can’t really believe what they tell Jean and neither does Jean, but he doesn’t know quite what they’re after other than information about a person he can’t remember. But the novel now concentrates on Jean’s attempts to remember events from his past. He now remembers meeting Guy Torstel and he eventually recognises a passport photograph of a seven year-old boy in the ‘dossier’ as himself which sparks more memories of when the photograph was taken and how he included this rather insignificant event into his first novel. Slowly he pieces bits of his past together and he remembers living with a woman, Annie Astrand, when he was seven and that the passport photographs were needed as they were going to go to Rome. He had included a section in his novel about this in order to reach out to Annie whom he had lost contact with.

He had written this book only in the hope that she might get in touch with him. Writing a book, for him, was also a way of beaming a searchlight or sending out coded signals to certain people with whom he had lost touch. It was enough to scatter their names at random through the pages and wait until they finally produced news of themselves.

Annie did get in touch but, in keeping with the rest of the novel, only little bits of information are revealed. We discover that Annie was friends with Colette and that Annie spent time in prison but this is all vague information dredged up from unreliable memories and uncooperative people.

This was an interesting read although it was also quite frustrating at times. I don’t mind the fact that it begins as a bit of a noir detective novel and changes tack halfway through; in fact I quite liked this aspect of the novella where we think it’s going to be about Gilles’s and Chantals’s blackmailing of Jean, or worse. There were a few coincidences, such as Gilles living in the same building as Jean had and possibly even in the same room; there were identity issues, such as Jean not recognising photographs of himself, Chantal and Annie both changed their names—these are topics that are common in Auster’s novels and I find that they can be annoying if overdone but can be intriguing as they add an eerie quality to the text. But it was the vagueness of Jean’s memory that was a little annoying, I mean, it’s understandable that we forget things but when he won’t even look in his own novel to verify what he wrote or look into a suitcase that contains personal documents or ask people direct questions then I begin to find the character quite frustrating and the author is being obstinately obfuscating. The end of the novel cuts off sharply with very little resolved and will be a source of frustration for a lot of readers but as long as you’re not expecting everything to be wrapped up neatly at the end then you may be able to cope with it. So I do feel that Modiano was just a little too vague about details; he slowly drips little bits of information and clues, as Jean rediscovers them, but in the end just too much is left hanging, too much is left ambiguous. Surely Jean would know and be able to share a few details which would help us such as why he was with Annie rather than his parents, where he lived afterwards, when his parents died etc.

My initial reading of this novella was quite fractured as I read it over a couple of days commuting to and from work. I skimmed through the whole book before writing this post which I found useful as I started to see more in it than I did in my first read, unfortunately these were more questions than answers, but it made me appreciate it more. I would suggest that it is best read in one or two sittings. I’m looking forward to reading some more by Modiano though I’m not sure which one will be my next read.

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‘Clochemerle’ by Gabriel Chevallier

Chevalier_Clochemerle-fcXC-700pxClochemerle was originally published in France in 1934 and translated into English by Jocelyn Godefroi. The story takes place in the 1920s in the sleepy Beaujolais town and begins with two inhabitants of the town, the mayor Barthélemy Piéchut and the schoolmaster Ernest Tafardel, trying to decide upon something that will show the world just how progressive a town Clochemerle is. Every town has a war memorial, a public library will be of no interest to the locals, but Piéchut thinks he knows what the town needs—a public urinal. And where will it be situated? Well, the position of the urinal is what drives much of the novel, as Piéchut intends the urinal to be placed close to the church. The church is ‘wedged in between two blind alleys’ and it was at the opening of one of these alleys that Piéchut proposed the urinal should be placed. Looking out on the urinal will be the Curé Ponosse from his classroom and Justine Putet, the most devout inhabitant of the town. Piéchut’s intention is to irritate the church and to ‘be seen’ to irritate the church as he had recently been criticised as being under the control of the church and nobility.

Chevallier populates the town with a whole load of brilliant characters and spends two chapters just introducing us to some of them. We meet the Curé Ponosse who first came to Clochemerle thirty years earlier and we learn how he acquired a taste for the local wine and of his arrangements with his housekeeper, Honorine, to satisfy any other urges—in fact, it is Honorine who suggests it to him.

    ‘Poor young man,’ she said, ‘you must find it very hard at your age, always being alone. It’s not human, that sort of thing…After all, you are a man!’
    ‘Oh dear, oh dear, Honorine!’ the Curé Ponosse answered with a sigh, turning crimson, and suddenly attacked by guilty inclinations.
    ‘It’ll end by driving you silly, you may depend on it! There have been people who’ve gone off their heads from that.’
    ‘In my profession, one must mortify oneself, Honorine!’ the unhappy man replied feebly.
    But the faithful servant treated him like an unruly child: ‘You’re not going to ruin your health, are you? And what will it be to God if you get a bad illness?’

When Ponosse discovers that Honorine had a similar ‘arrangement’ with the previous Curé, he relents and makes confessional arrangements with the Curé in a nearby village who has similar arrangements with his housekeeper. At the time of the novel Ponosse is more interested in the local wine and his pipe, much to the annoyance of Honorine.

Other characters include the Baroness Courtebiche, a rather imperious noble woman; Judith Toumignon, the beautiful wife of François, owner of the Beaujolais Stores. All the women of Clochemerle were envious of Judith and all the men desired her; Hippolyte Foncimage, Judith’s elegant lover; Dr Mouraille, the incredibly brutal and insensitive doctor; the notary Girodot, his wife and his nineteen year-old daughter, Hortense—described as ‘a strange family’ who seemed to like money above everything else. Chevallier delights in giving us the details of all these characters; and with the description of Justine Putet, Chevallier really excels himself:

Enter Justine Putet, of whom it is now time to speak. Imagine a swarthy-looking, ill-tempered person, dried-up and of viperish disposition, with a bad complexion, an evil expression, a cruel tongue, defective internal economy, and (over all this) a layer of aggressive piety and loathsome suavity of speech. A paragon of virtue of a kind that filled you with dismay, for virtue in such a guise as this is detestable to behold, and in this instance it seemed to be inspired by a spirit of hatred and vengeance rather than by ordinary feelings of kindness. An energetic user of rosaries, a fervent petitioner at her prayers, but also an unbridled sower of calumny and clandestine panic. In a word, she was the scorpion of Clochemerle, but a scorpion disguised as a woman of genuine piety.

And so, it is on a glorious April day, ‘as though the world had had a fresh coat of paint’, that the urinal is ‘opened’ to the public. The inauguration is part of a fête and there are many guests and many speeches, and although the Baroness declines the offer to attend she sends her son-in-law in her place. This snub by the Baroness is just further proof to Piéchut that he has succeeded in his political manouevrings.

And so, what could possibly go wrong? Well, the urinal becomes a sort of hang-out for the local teenagers who start to lark about and there is a steady stream of visitors. As Justine Putet’s house overlooks the urinal she watches what is going on and is furious with the depravity of her fellow citizens, especially with the larking about of the boys. She tries to get others to support her opposition to the urinal but it’s a slow business as most people aren’t as bothered as she is. But she persists and whenever something bad happens she’s the first to blame the corrupting influence of the urinal; such as when a girl gets pregnant. Slowly support grows and the battle ensues between the Urinophobes and the Urinophiles.

I won’t reveal much more of the plot but it’s all rather funny and farcical. The characters are all expertly described and then let loose to cause chaos. Tensions between the inhabitants of the town escalate culminating in a fight in the church between Judith Tourmigan’s husband, François, and Nicholas, the beadle. Up to this point Chevallier has expertly ramped up the tensions between the characters but I feel he loses control of the story a bit from hereon, especially when he switches the focus of the story to Paris as the scandals start to get the attention of the Parisian politicians. In the end the army get involved but I feel it would have worked better if he’d kept the focus entirely on Clochemerle, which would have made it feel more claustrophobic. The ‘interludes’ in Paris just seem unnecessary.

A BBC series was made of Clochemerle in 1972 and it was released on DVD in 2013—I have a copy and shall be watching this soon; as it was scripted by Galton & Simpson I’m hoping it will be entertaining. There were also two sequels to Clochemerle; Clochemerle Babylon (1951) and Clochemerle-les-Bains (1963) which I aim to read soon.

There is nothing in human affairs that is a true subject for ridicule. Beneath comedy lies the ferment of tragedy; the farcical is but a cloak for coming catastrophe.

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‘Rome’ (Part 2) by Émile Zola

Zola_Rome_fcX-700pxEarlier in the year I read the first half of Rome by Émile Zola and in my post I described how boring it was and I wasn’t sure whether to abandon it or not. Well, I decided to continue with it and finished it on New Year’s Eve. I thought that I owed it to Zola to continue and also because I do actually intend to read Paris, which is the last in the series. I read it in smaller, more palatable, chunks but it didn’t really improve; the main story was just as boring and the subplot with Benedetta and Dario was just as ludicrous.

The only saving grace was that Pierre did get to meet the Pope to discuss his book on ‘Socialistic Catholicicm’ only to find that the Pope was not exactly impressed with his ideas. Not only did we, the readers, know that the Pope wouldn’t ever support the book but all the other characters in the novel knew that he was doomed to failure as well. Surprisingly Pierre capitulates and agrees to withdraw his book rather than defend it, and then later when he’s alone he has a petulant fit where he denounces Catholicism and declares that only science has the answers. At no point does it cross his mind to publish his book without the Pope’s blessing or to ditch the Catholicism in his ‘Socialistic Catholicism’, especially as he admits way back at the beginning of Lourdes that he no longer believes in God and Catholicism. By the end of the novel I no longer cared what he did or thought.

The silly subplot with Benedetta and Dario, that even Zola says in the text ‘had no place save in the fifth acts of melodramas’ comes to an even more bizarre conclusion. Benedetta has got her divorce from her husband and now she and Dario are free to marry but some poisoned figs are delivered which are intended for Benedetta’s uncle but end up being eaten by Dario. Whilst on his death-bed Benedetta, stripped naked, goes to him:

   “My Dario, here I am!”
   For a second, which seemed an eternity, they clasped one another, she neither repelled nor terrified by the disorder which made him so unrecognisable, but displaying a delirious passion, a holy frenzy as if to pass beyond life, to penetrate with him into the black Unknown. And beneath the shock of the felicity at last offered to him he expired, with his arms yet convulsively wound around her as though indeed to carry her off. Then, whether from grief or from bliss amidst that embrace of death, there came such a rush of blood to her heart that the organ burst: she died on her lover’s neck, both tightly and for ever clasped in one another’s arms.
   There was a faint sigh. Victorine understood and drew near, while Pierre, also erect, remained quivering with the tearful admiration of one who has beheld the sublime.
   “Look, look!” whispered the servant, “she no longer moves, she no longer breathes. Ah! my poor child, my poor child, she is dead!”
   Then the priest murmured: “Oh! God, how beautiful they are.”

Yes, not only does her heart stop just at the same time as she kisses Dario but they are also buried together locked in this embrace. Graham King has noted in Garden of Zola that this ‘death-kiss syndrome’ had appeared in previous novels by Zola, such as Le Rêve and La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret but this whole subplot just seems totally out of place in this novel. It’s strange how nothing happens for most of the novel, then Zola wraps up both stories in a chapter or two and then limps on with another couple of chapters where Pierre says goodbye to everyone.

It’s fair to say that I didn’t like this book so you may be interested in other blogger’s reviews of Rome such as Behold the Stars’ review which contains much background information that I found interesting when I was trudging through the book and the review on Old Books by Dead Guys blog. Both blogs have many other reviews of Zola’s books.

This was cross-posted on the Reading Zola blog.

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‘Boule de Suif’ by Guy de Maupassant

Boule de Suif is one of Maupassant’s more famous stories and it is the one that first made him famous. The story first appeared in the 1880 collection of stories called Les Soirées de Médan which were all centred around the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1. The collection also included stories by Zola and Huysmans. When Flaubert, Maupassant’s mentor, read it he was ecstatic, he wrote:

I am impatient to tell you that I consider Boule de Suif a masterpiece. Yes, young man! Nothing more, nothing less. It is the work of a master. It is original in conception, well constructed from beginning to end, and written in excellent style.

I think that most people who read the story today will agree with Flaubert as did the readers at the time of publication.

The story opens with the defeated French army passing through Rouen. The Prussians soon occupy the town and the soldiers are billeted with the townspeople. Le Havre is still in the hands of the French and several of the wealthy inhabitants of Rouen, with the Prussians’ permission, arrange a carriage destined for Le Havre. They leave at daybreak while snow is still falling. The occupants of the coach consist of a petits bourgeois couple, a bourgeois couple, an aristocratic couple, two nuns, a democrat Cornudet and hidden away in the corner is someone that the others disapprove of:

The woman, one of those usually known as a good-time girl, was famous for the premature portliness which had earned her the nickname Boule de Suif. Small, round as a barrel, fat as butter and with fingers tightly jointed like strings of small sausages, her glowing skin and the enormous bosom which strained under the constraints of her dress — as well as her freshness, which was a delight to the eye — made her hugely desirable and much sought after. She had a rosy apple of a face, a peony bud about to burst into bloom. Out of it looked two magnificent dark eyes shaded by thick black lashes. Further down was a charming little mouth complete with invitingly moist lips and tiny, gleaming pearly-white teeth. She was said to possess a variety of other inestimable qualities.

The respectable women disapprovingly discuss her presence in the carriage whilst the businessmen talk of business matters. The carriage makes slow progress through the snow and because of the war there are no inns open. Everyone becomes hungry, and it turns out that Boule de Suif is the only one who has brought along provisions. Slowly, they accept her offers of food and as a result they become friendly towards her. Although the others are leaving Rouen mostly for monetary reasons, Boule de Suif is leaving because she can’t bear to see the sight of Prussian soldiers occupying a French town.

They arrive at Tôtes in the evening. They are greeted by a Prussian officer and allowed to take rooms in a hotel. Once they are settled the innkeeper tells Boule de Suif that the officer would like to see her. She reluctantly goes but returns, cursing the officer. The following day the travellers are prevented from continuing their journey by order of the officer. It turns out that the officer will only allow them to continue their journey once Boule de Suif has slept with him. The officer sends the innkeeper to find out if she has changed her mind but she indignantly refuses to capitulate:

Boule de Suif remained standing. At first very pale, she suddenly turned crimson, choking so much with rage that she was unable to speak. Finally she burst out: ‘Tell that bastard, that sod of a Prussian, that I never will, d’you hear? Never, never, never!’

If you don’t want to know the ending of the story you may wish to stop reading at this point.

The others are initially shocked and angrily disapprove of the officer’s uncouth behaviour and sympathise with Boule de Suif’s position. But, as the days drag on they become less sympathetic towards her. They begin to resent her, a lowly prostitute, preventing them from continuing their journey. After all, they reason, all she’s being asked to do is what she does for a living anyway. They try to convince her to give in to the officer’s demands but have little luck at first. When the nuns reveal that they are trying to get to Le Havre to nurse French soldiers Boule de Suif eventually goes to see the officer. Meanwhile, the other travellers celebrate, getting drunk and telling risqué stories. Only Cornudet, the democrat, seems to be concerned over the way they’re behaving.

The following day the carriage is allowed to leave. Boule de Suif enters the carriage timidly and everyone is embarrased.

At first no one spoke. Boule de Suif dared not look up. She felt simultaneously angry with her neighbours, humiliated by having given in to them, and defiled by the caresses of the Prussian into whose arms they had so hypocritically thrown her.

But her humiliation is not over yet. Now, with normality restored, they can ignore Boule de Suif completely and to really dig the knife in they all get their parcels of food out and start tucking in. Boule de Suif of course has not got any food with her; the others ignore her as they eat and chat away. Their incredible hypocrisy angers her but she is soon overcome with tears; Mme Loiseau tells the others that she’s crying ‘from shame, that’s all’.

The travellers are a good cross-section of French ‘civilised society’, with the exception of Boule de Suif of course, but it is only she that is patriotic, honest and honourable. The others are revealed to be mean-spirited, callous, greedy and self-centred. Even the nuns are shown in a bad light as it is their story of helping the wounded soldiers that was the final argument that convinced Boule de Suif to go against her own decision. And in the final scene no-one, not even Cornudet, shows her any compassion or shares any food with her. Instead, she just sits in the carriage sobbing ashamed of herself and angry at the others.

The Flaubert quotation was taken from Maupassant (1950) by Francis Steegmuller and the Boule de Suif quotations were taken from Siân Miles’ translation from the Penguin collection, A Parisian Affair and Other Stories (2004).

This was cross-posted on the Marvellous Maupassant blog.

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