Naturally, my going to France in April meant that my reading theme for the month was French books. In the end, what with going to Disney and exploring Paris, I didn’t get through as many books as I may have.
First I read Eugénie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac.
The family Grandet are so well described by the description of their house, an old, rundown and pleasureless place where very little ever happens. Eugénie spends the first twenty-three years in the house, quietly sewing next to her mother, being doled out her lunch of a bit of bread and some fruit in the morning and not really noticing how stultifying her life is. Her mother accepts this life because she aspires to sainthood, her father is the cause of it. The older Grandet was a cooper who has moved into landowning and wine production thanks to the dowry from his marriage, essentially it was his wife’s money but he hangs onto it tightly and grows it at the expense of everyone else. He institutes a threadbare, thrifty lifestyle on his family, who fear even small expenses like a little extra sugar or some butter for their slice of bread. What’s more his lust for gold, spurs him to become an almost supernaturally successful businessman, causing a mixture of envy and admiration from his neighbours.
Neighbours are important in this book. It’s set in a small town and gossip is almost a character in itself. As well as gossip about Grandet’s finances, there’s gossip about the status of his daughter, Eugénie. There are two camps that do what they can to inveigle their way into the Grandet household in order to marry her, despite the fact that she has no particular feelings for them and they have none for her. Eugénie is trapped in a world where money is the only real value and she is seen as the valuable inheritor of Grandet’s finances.
This all changes with the sudden arrival of her cousin, Charles. He’s from Paris, he’s handsome and because he was given the impression that his uncle was a rich country gent, he is dressed in all his best togs with a beautiful travelling case. Eugénie gets her mother and their faithful servant, Manon to give Charles luxuries they don’t have, like a heated room and a decent lunch. There’s an element of naughtiness to their hospitality as the older Grandet would be (and is ) utterly against it. What Charles doesn’t know is that he’s been sent to the country because his father has become a bankrupt and shot himself, leaving the young man with nothing. While this makes him a burden in Grandet’s eyes, it makes him more approachable and human to Eugénie and they have a short but fulfilling romance which culminates in a kiss. This is where Balzac is a cruel bastard, as he reveals to the reader that Charles isn’t some sensitive, deep-hearted figure but is just as greedy and grasping as everyone else in the world. It just so happens that Eugénie meets him at a moment when he is down and vulnerable. She gives him twenty-three rare gold coins, her lifelong birthday presents, to set him up in his new career in the West Indies. He leaves his travelling case, declaring it the most important item to him.
The handling of time in this novel is rather odd. After a timeless description of the house and how it’s been going for twenty-odd years, the bulk of the action happens over a week. Starting with a party where the rivals for Eugénie’s hand try and schmooze, the arrival of Charles, the period of romance, the exchange of the coins - it’s all in a tiny time. We then build up months to the New Year, when Grandet likes to see Eugénie’s coins. It’s tense. We know she doesn’t have them and we know he’ll be furious about it. We also learn of his dodgy financial wheelings and dealings.
When the confrontation about the coins comes, it is explosive. At one point Grandet threatens to damage Charles’s precious travelling case with a knife and Eugénie threatens herself with a knife in reply. The shock brings Eugénie’s mother onto a spiral of illness, and Eugénie herself is locked up with only bread and water. However, as her mum dies, she feels closer to God and as Eugénie suffers, she knows it was for the good of her beloved - so there’s a certain purpose and positivity to the suffering.
Then there’s another sweep in time. Following Eugénie’s mother’s death, Grandet gets Eugénie to sign her inheritance to him but as time flies, Grandet gets old and dies, leaving Eugénie a rich woman. She patiently awaits Charles, who returns to Paris after his years in the West Indies a loveless and greedy man who is engaged to a poor but titled woman. Although she has been hanging deeply on his memory and also his travelling case, he has forgotten her and asks for the travelling case as an afterthought. Eugénie then marries one of the people she had no interest in and carries on living her dry, dusty life, following the habits Grandet instilled in her as a child.
It’s a cruel book. There is another way this story could have been told, with a deathbed redemption of the miser, a return of the golden young man or with the character of Eugénie finding something that makes life worthwhile to her - and I think many authors would have taken this options, as it is, this is a murmured tragedy of lives quietly wasted and its powerful for that. I found it powerful and sad in a quiet way and I’m interested to see what else Balzac has in his rather large body of work.
The next I read was Scenes from the Latin Quarter by Henri Murger which should have annoyed me. The lives of amoral, egotistic, snotbags who think they are a special kind of person because they make ‘art’ usually turn me right off - I hated ‘Rent’. But I loved this book, finding the characters very endearing and their stories funny.
One of the main reasons I think I enjoyed this, is because the Bohemian society at the centre of this book (Schuanard, Marcel, Colline and Rodolphe) know that they are only going through a phase in their life and hope (if they survive it) to come out the other side as respectable artists. Nor do they display a feeling of superiority about their way of life, they don’t think they are better people for their hardships, nor do they think poverty improves their art. Indeed, there is a group of artists in a different club called ‘the water drinkers’ who ban one of their members because he’ll take up commercial uses for his sculpting skills and the main Bohemian club in the book feel the water drinkers are pretty stupid for this attitude.
The reader is introduced to Schuanard the musician first and I thought he was to be the main character. He’s the tricksiest of the group, a scourge on landlords everywhere. We meet him slipping out of a room he can’t pay for and, with a series of slights-of-hand, becomes the co-renter with the artist, Marcel. A lady’s man, he has one trick where he uses fake coins to trick dancing girls to go out with him. His nightwear is one of the dancing girl’s pink petticoats. When the characters of the the men’s girlfriends enter the picture, he is paired up with the wildest, Phéme. Although he’s the catalyst for the group to get together, he becomes the least mentioned of the main four. I loved the story of how he comes into some money by playing very loudly and badly on a piano to annoy a rich man’s next door neighbour.
The next we meet is Marcel. He’s a painter who is originally flush with cash but, like all the characters when they come into money, seems to get through it quickly. He’s been painting a depiction of the Egyptians being swept by the Red Sea for four years but it keeps being sent back. He retools the painting to depict other things but that doesn’t work either. Later, he makes a small fortune selling it for an inn-sign. His girlfriend is Musette. She’s a beautiful courtesan and the two of them fall in love despite knowing that it can’t last, as Musette will have to go with someone richer eventually. Even when she does leave, she is still romantically entwined, dropping a rich keeper to spend time with him whenever he’s in funds.
Then we meet Colline the philosopher. I mainly liked him for his large, hazel overcoat filled with books. I have a large, old coat that often has a book in the pockets but he has an entire library. It’s even organised with a ‘foreign languages’ pocket. He considers a day lost when he doesn’t buy at least one book, I know how he feels. His romantic partner is never named or seen, though we are told he has one. He’s probably the most stable of the four, whatever that’s worth.
Finally we meet Rodolphe the writer, who becomes the main focus of the book. He is the editor of a fashion magazine and the trade magazine for hat writers but he gets called to do other commissions, such as when his uncle locks him in a house with no clothes to write a book on wood-burning stoves. He falls in love with Mimi, and theirs is the most fractious relationship in the book. It’s presented as semi-abusive, with he being on the alert for other lovers and she looking for them. Eventually, she’s the one to suffer the emotional death.
I think my fondness for this book was helped by the fact that I read it eight floors up in a Parisian loft, with a view of the rooftops and the Sacré-Cœur glowing on the hill. It also helped that I have been a grubbing writer for the last twenty years and have served my time in my own bohemia. Like the people in the book I experienced real want and hunger but I also found true friendship and kindness. Despite their messy lives, it’s the friendship of the four men that shines most in this book.
Next I read The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola.
It had a really striking beginning; a man who had been starving for over ten years in a hellish prison camp has managed to escape back to France and has made it to the outskirts of Paris only to not recognise the city he called home after its renovation under Napoleon III. He faints on the bridge and is take to Les Halles, Paris’s new state-of-the-art marketplace under steel and glass pavilions, a starving man surrounded by food. The descriptions of the vegetables being unloaded in the early morning light were painterly, a watercolour in blues and purples with the greens of the vegetables becoming more striking as the sun rises.
Each of the (absurdly long) chapters has a particular food to theme it. The fresh healthiness of the vegetables in chapter one, the luxury of the charcuterie products in the second, the queasy, slippery beauty of the fish in the third - these become increasingly unpleasant, reaching in a musical symphony of cheese-smells. These food descriptions take up a lot of the page-space but are not only wonderfully done, but make a point about the obscene plenty that is rushing into Paris at the time.
An alternative English title of this book is Thins and Fats. It could be easy to see this as have and have-nots or rich and poor, but it’s not. Most of the characters in this book are Fats, even the poor woman who eats table scraps from posh events and the two street urchins who live in the crevices of the market. The difference is not how much the person receives but their satisfaction. The Fats are the satisfied, comfortable people, happy with the status-quo and afraid of anyone causing disruption. Florent, our main character, is a Thin, he’s hungry for change, particularly political change and his hunger is a threat to the Fats around him.
This is a book with some really striking scenes. The one where Florent has his little niece Pauline on his lap and is describing his escape from a prison camp, including the bodies of those less lucky pulsating with all the crabs inside eating them - while Florent’s brother and assistant are making black pudding, is a highlight. I also liked how the people became the food they worked with, whether they became like a ham, had buttery skin, smelled of flowers, had slippery hands like a fish - in this world you aren’t only what you eat, but what you worked with.
It was also interesting how the market is a woman’s world. Not only are women the main store-holders and customers but all the men in the book are cowed under them. Their strength, heartiness and physicality is almost fetishised by the writer who takes rather more pleasure in describing big bosomed women having a scrap than he possibly should have.
Another striking element of the book is how the ending is sealed in place before the book even begins. Like Jean Valjean, Florent is marked and there is no going back, only onwards to the last line, which almost acts as a sardonic punchline to the whole book.
My last French book was another Zola, Zest for Life (as my translation called it - had Iggy Pop in my head for ages). I chose this because the main character was someone I had met before, Pauline, the daughter of the charcuterie owners in the previous book. I needed have bothered, it says very quickly that Pauline forgot her old Paris life and she was essentially a different character. The prissy, over-dressed, over-indulged little girl we met in that book only really came through to this one on her satisfaction in life.. her Zest for Life perhaps. Though, this book being French, the happy title is bitterly ironic.
Although there’s no real carry-through of Pauline’s character or experiences from The Belly of Paris, Zest for Life could be seen as a mirror-image of it. In ‘Belly’, a Thin - or unsatisfied person, is shopped by the whole market society of Fats - those satisfied with the status-quo. In ‘Zest’, a Fat, satisfied person is strip-mined of everything she has by a group of unsatisfied Thins.
In some ways, the book surprised me. My blurb gave the entire plot away beat by beat, so I was expecting the family Pauline moves in with to be unpleasant and abusive. They aren’t, they love her and the love lasts a long time until the son is ruined by university and launches on a bunch of daft schemes he doesn’t have the stickability to make work. To aid these schemes, his mother starts taking Pauline’s inheritance, which makes her hate Pauline. What’s more, Pauline falls in love with this son, Lazare. She not only sacrifices her inheritance but also her time, patience, love and essentially life to this worthless man. It’s one of those loves where the reader feels that if Pauline had met any other male her age, then she wouldn’t be in love with Lazare. It’s a very frustrating relationship and turns the book into a slog.
Another element that turns the book into a slog is how unrelentingly bleak it is. At one point one character has a fever near to death, then there is a huge gout attack, then someone has dropsy and dies, then another massive gout attack and then most prolonged, painful and claustrophobic descriptions of a difficult birth I’ve ever read, then another gout attack - all while Lazare is moping about in that solid steel egocentric bubble that comes over a person with depression. It’s exhausting.
Then there’s a surprise suicide at the end and, like the other Zola book I’ve read, the last line comes across as a sort of summary/bad-taste punchline to the rest of the book.
I did enjoy my French books though I was rather hemmed in by tragedy and weighed down by stories of money. Something I had little of when I returned from Paris.