Tag Archives: France

Those French!

Is it any wonder that not one but two words in English for a social climber—arriviste and parvenu—come from the French? Our language is peppered with borrowed terms that provide nuanced derision in respect to class and wealth: nouveau riche, bourgeois, and gauche are but a few.

I can see why the French economist Thomas Picketty, who has made his name with a study of wealth inequality, was fascinated with Honoré de Balzac’s novel Père Goriot. It’s as if Balzac’s characters epitomize many of these class-based pejoratives.

Balzac by Rodin Photo Credit: Musée Rodin

Balzac by Rodin
Photo Credit: Musée Rodin

Balzac was one of the great fathers of the realistic novel. In The Human Comedy, a series of eighteen novels in which characters appear and reappear, he depicts the complexities of French society between Napoleon’s reign and the Revolution of 1848. As Dickens dramatized life in the sooty, foggy, wretched, have-and-have-not world of Victorian London, so Balzac documented the pompous, greedy, stratified and amoral society of Paris during the Bourbon Restoration. The French Revolution may have toppled the ancien régime, but deference to status and wealth never disappeared.

In Cousin Bette, my favorite of his novels, Balzac targets the power struggle between the sexes. Men may wield power through the laws and purse strings, but clever women survive by charming and manipulating them—husbands and lovers alike. As Balzac sees it, men are vain, foolish and lustful, making them easy marks of feminine guile.

In Père Goriot, Balzac’s focus is on love and money. Old Goriot, a widowed vermicelli merchant now living in a seedy boarding house, has doted on his two daughters all his life. Because of the large dowries Goriot provided them, both are married to noblemen and treat their father with shameful ingratitude.

578367Enter Eugène Rastignac, a law student from a “good” but impoverished family, who arrives in Paris to make his fortune. Settling into the same boarding house, he befriends old Goriot. Eugène’s one distant relation in the capital happens to be a baroness, and he relies on her to make his debut into high society. At a ball hosted by the baroness he meets one of Goriot’s daughters, the Madame de Restaud, and becomes determined to win her heart. When rebuffed (she already has a lover), he takes aim with a vengeance at the other daughter, the Madame de Nucingen.

It’s a cynical and very French interpretation of love that Balzac puts forth. Eugène—so intent on gaining a foothold in society—convinces himself that he loves Madame de Nucingen. And Goriot, in his fondness for Eugène and his antipathy for his sons-in-law, encourages Eugène in his seduction. Goriot hopes Eugène’s attentions will make his daughter happy and enable him to see her more often, or at least hear about her from Eugène.

Meanwhile, one of the more interesting characters in the book, the shady criminal Vautrin who also lives in the boarding house, expounds a truly cynical worldview. Counseling Eugène to marry an heiress (which he is willing to arrange for a fee), Vautrin whispers like the devil in his ear:

There are fifty thousand young men in your position at this moment, all bent as you are on solving one and the same problem—how to acquire a fortune rapidly. You are but a unit in the aggregate. You can guess, therefore, what efforts you must make, how desperate the struggle is. There are not fifty thousand good positions for you; you must fight and devour one another like spiders in a pot. Do you know how a man makes his way here? By brilliant genius or by skillful corruption. You must either cut your way through these masses of men like a cannon ball, or steal among them like a plague. Honesty is nothing to the purpose.

Vautrin nearly persuades the young student: “Vautrin is right, success is virtue!” Eugène says to himself in a moment of financial frustration. But he subsequently convinces himself that with Madame de Nucingen he can find both love and fortune; it’s this naiveté that Balzac gradually chips away through the course of the novel. No one comes away unscathed, except perhaps old Goriot, whose devotion to his daughters in the face of the most heartless cruelty is the least credible aspect of this retelling of King Lear.

Early on, Balzac hints at his theme in a description of the garden of the boarding house where Eugène, Vautrin and old Goriot live:

On the opposite wall, at the further end of the graveled walk, a green marble arch was painted once upon a time by a local artist, and in this semblance of a shrine a statue representing Cupid is installed; a Parisian Cupid, so blistered and disfigured that he looks like a candidate for one of the adjacent hospitals, and might suggest an allegory to lovers of symbolism.

An allegory, indeed. But not just for Parisians. Which may explain why so many of those derisive French words have entered our own language.

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Is historical fiction intrinsically cheap?

Henry James wrote in a letter to Sarah Orne Jewett, “the ‘historic’ novel is, for me, condemned, even in cases of labor as delicate as yours, to a fatal cheapness…” (I am indebted to Samir Chopra’s excellent blog for this thought-provoking quote.) A modern writer, James continues, can include historical details but cannot invent or represent “the old consciousness, the soul, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world were non-existent.” Jewett wanted to write about the New England Puritans, but to James’ point, how could she without being one?

HHhHLaurent Binet, the French author of HHhH, apparently agrees. Winner of the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, HHhH is a gripping, self-conscious historical novel about the daring attempt by the Czechoslovakian Resistance to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler’s right-hand man and mastermind of the Final Solution, in Prague in 1942. Through a careful orchestration of the story’s  facts, presented with the ironies that only a historical perspective can provide, he avoids the “old consciousness” entirely, except in supposition, and yet he creates a suspenseful and nuanced tale.

I was drawn to Binet’s book not only by its subject but also by his treatment of the “historic” problem. For, although I enjoy the history in historical fiction, I share James’ concern: the fictional aspect, meaning the experiential truth of it, is usually disappointing. The lack of the “old consciousness” was the problem I had with The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin, as I struggled to articulate here, and it is frequently the problem I have with books about Elizabethans or Victorians written by modern authors: they fail to capture the consciousness of the time, making the story and, consequentially, the history false.

Laurent Binet (Photo credit: Booktrust.org.uk)

Laurent Binet (Photo credit: Booktrust.org.uk)

Binet gets the problem. Born in 1972, he knows he would be faking any dialogue between Heydrich and Himmler or between the two brave resistance fighters who parachuted into Czechoslovakia to kill Heydrich. So, to get around the “consciousness” problem, he inserts himself as a first-person narrator into the novel, critiquing his own story-telling and advising the reader not to believe what he wrote: it is made up and a disservice to the important truth of the real story. This metafictional device is clever and coy at the same time, and toward the climax of the novel it delays without adding value, becoming somewhat annoying. Yet it highlights the dilemma fiction writers face with any historical drama; it also adds another, more postmodern dimension to the story (as John Fowles’ techniques did in The French Lieutenant’s Woman).

Binet forces the reader to ask not only how much of what he writes is true, but how much of the past is truly capturable. Is all history fiction? Is all fiction false? What is the point of history if our imagination and empathy are not involved? And what better way to tap our imagination and empathy than with fiction? Binet doesn’t really resolve James’ issue, but he does a fine job raising these ancillary questions.

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Proustian promises

Marcel Proust in 1900

Marcel Proust in 1900 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This year I’ve done what I hope is not a foolish thing: I have joined a Goodreads group called “The Year of Reading Proust.” There are some 800 of us led by a well-organized and devoted Proustian who online goes by the wonderful sobriquet Proustitute. The group formed late last year and, once the best English and French editions were identified and a year-long schedule devised, we began with ancillary readings to enhance the understanding of In Search of Lost Time: lectures by John Ruskin on architecture and art, books about the paintings and music in Proust, biographies of Proust, other books by Proust.

But now we are reading the masterpiece itself. I’ve read Swann’s Way before, back in the day when the entire work was mistranslated into English as Remembrance of Things Past, a title Proust apparently disliked. Tomorrow we must be through the first section, which is some 64 pages describing the narrator’s childhood memory of going to bed.

There is a hypnotic, almost dreamlike specificity to Proust’s writing. Long, entwining sentences full of refined sensations and thoughts. Re-reading Swann’s Way, which culminates in Swann’s crushing realizations about obsession and love, teases me with my own notions of time and memory (a bright fall day in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, sitting in an armchair in the living room of my parents’ house, the musty scent from the yellowed paper of an old edition tickling my nose), notions that only reinforce the essence of Proust’s theme. Reading him again is like dipping a madeleine in tea.

But, seven volumes, over 4000 pages, a full year of devotion! It’s quite the New Year’s resolution. When will I eat, when will I blog, when will I write? Can I go a year, or whatever it takes to finish, so single-mindedly devoted? Is the journey worth it?

Doubts already creep in, and it’s only January. Proust’s last volume is titled Time Regained, but that only happens in fiction, right?

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