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Posts Tagged ‘19th Century French Literature’

Alexandre Dumas’ ‘The Three Musketeers’ was one of my favourite books during my pre-teens and early teens. I read the abridged edition at that time, and I read it many times. Later when I went to work, I got my first copy of the unabridged version of the book. It was still wonderful, but the magic seemed to have waned a little bit. This month our book club decided to read this book. I was quite excited but also a little worried – excited because I wanted to enter the world of D’Artagnan and his friends and Milady and Cardinal Richelieu again, and worried because I wasn’t sure how my re-reading experience was going to be and whether it will disturb my original pleasant memory of the book. I finished reading it during the weekend. Here is what I think.

The Three Musketeers By Alexandre Dumas

I think the story told in ‘The Three Musketeers’ must be known by everyone and so I will just summarize it in a few sentences. It is about a young man who travels from his village to Paris in search of fame and fortune. He meets strangers on the way, gets into skirmishes, makes some wonderful friends, ends up being in the king’s service, gets caught in political intrigues and he and his friends weather all storms and beat the baddies at their game. If you want to know more and you haven’t read the book, you should read it soon. It is filled with action and humour and suspense and is a page turner.

 

I thought I will write more about my re-reading experience here. I thought that I might have problems with the book and I might not like the book as much as I did before because I have changed as a person since the last time I read it. I was also looking forward to finding out whether that might be true. Well, my re-reading experience was interesting. After so many years, the book was still enjoyable. The action was fast-paced and there was a lot of dialogue. I read the Richard Pevear translation which came out a few years back and in his introduction Pevear says this :

 

“We think of The Three Musketeers as a novel of action and adventure, of duels, skirmishes, galloping horses, and yet it is nine-tenths dialogue. The suspense comes most often not from what the characters are about to do to each other, but from what they are about to say to each other. It is based not so much on narrative action as on dramatic confrontation.”

 

I loved what Pevear said and when reading the story one realizes that what he says is true.

 

There are many stylish scenes in the book.  For example, in one scene where there is a battle going on between the King’s troops and their enemies, the three musketeers (Athos, Porthos and Aramis) and D’Artagnan are having lunch and holding council in a place between the two warring parties, in no-man’s land. The enemy sends a troop of twenty-soldiers to capture this bastion on no-man’s land. Seeing the enemy troops marching towards them, Porthos says : “How about returning to camp? It strikes me as an unequal match.” To which Athos replies : “Impossible for three reasons. First, we haven’t finished lunch.” It looks like a scene straight out of a Bruce Willis or a Jason Statham movie and it makes one smile 🙂

 

One thing that I discovered during my re-reading was that the characters were more complex than I initially thought. I couldn’t remember much about the minor characters from my earlier readings. But when I read the book again now, I discovered, for example, that the lackeys of our four heroes had interesting personalities of their own. Planchet, D’Artagnan’s lackey, is quite an interesting character, who is brave in important ways but is also wise enough to shy away from confrontation and danger when that is the right thing to do. I also had always pictured that out of the main characters, the good guys were D’Artagnan, the three musketeers Athos, Porthos and Aramis, Monsieur de Tréville, the Queen and Madame Bonacieux while the baddies were Cardinal Richelieu, Rochefort and Milady. Though this simplification is true to a certain extent (for example, Madame Bonacieux is really the angel that she is made out to be), Dumas also makes some of the characters flawed and complex and though we might like them or otherwise, we are able to appreciate that they are more complex human beings. For example, our hero D’Artagnan appears to be noble and brave and helps his friends and his Queen and those on his side. But there is another side to him. Though he is in love with Madame Bonacieux, after her disappearance, he doesn’t really go in search of her. He has got madly attracted to Milady and even after he discovers that she is responsible for Madame Bonacieux’ abduction, he chases Milady. He seduces Milady’s maid Kitty and uses her to get to Milady and after sleeping with her he makes her realize her that he has betrayed her. This is definitely not the behaviour of a noble hero. On the other hand, Milady, who is portrayed as the black-hearted villain, has more to her than meets the eye. When we learn the truth about Milady’s past, we feel sad for her and even sympathize with her. She was a nun who fell in love with a priest. When she tried running away with the priest the law caught up with them and both of them were branded. When she and her lover move to a village and live their life peacefully, the local lord falls in love with her and marries her. Then he discovers that she is branded and ties her up and hangs her. Milady somehow survives all this. And possibly her heart changes after this. And she becomes the cynical villain that she turns out to be. Even then there are some touching scenes where we can feel her heart softening, first towards the Count de Wardes and later towards Lieutenant Felton who saves her and helps her escape when she is imprisoned. Unfortunately, she is so far down the line that she doesn’t have any chance at redemption. But looking at Milady’s story, one feels that she was a strong woman who wanted to be free and the circumstances of her time did not permit her to be that way. I don’t know whether Dumas intended readers to think that way or whether it is my 21st century self reading between the lines and inserting my own interpretation there where none exist. But this is what I think. However, I would give credit to Dumas for one thing. There is a part of the book, where for a straight hundred pages, Dumas describes the story from Milady’s perspective and ignores our hero and his friends. For a hundred pages it is just about Milady and her life and the dangers she faces and how she comes out of them using her strength and determination. I don’t think the villain of a novel has got this much coverage in any book. Definitely not in a classic novel. Dumas must have been a brave man to do that and deserves kudos for that.

 

For a book which was supposed to be a nonstop action story, it holds some interesting surprises. Once in a while a contemplative passage leaps at the reader and surprises the reader with its beauty. One of my favourites was this :

 

Nothing makes the time pass or shortens the way like a thought that absorbs in itself all the faculties of the one who is thinking. External existence is then like a sleep of which this thought is the dream. Under its influence, time has no more measure, space has no more distance. You leave one place and arrive at another, that is all. Of the interval in between, nothing more remains in your memory than a vague mist in which a thousand confused images of trees, mountains, and landscapes dissolve.

 

The edition I read had notes which explained many of the historical and cultural references in the story – for example the Bartholomew massacre (on the night of which, Rafael Sabatini’s love story ‘The Scapulary’ takes place, and which I liked very much), the Edict of Nantes, the French wars of religion, the arquebus the first portable firearm, Madame de Sévigné (whose letters I want to read very much), the story of Judith from the Apocrypha, the illustrious family of Montmorency (I didn’t know that the dog Montmorency from Jerome K. Jerome’s ‘Three Men in a Boat’ had an illustrious background), Peter Paul Rubens (one of my favourite painters). The notes section was quite informative and fascinating to read.

 

There were also some quirky odd things in the story which I had fun spotting. For example, on page 65 there is a line which says that Athos had planned to spend the afternoon playing tennis with Porthos and Aramis. I wondered whether tennis was really played in the 17th century (the story narrated in the book happens from 1625 onwards). I did some research in Wikipedia and discovered that lawn tennis (the popular version today) gained popularity only in the 19th century, at the time Dumas wrote this book. The game which was prevalent at the time the story was told was real tennis which was an older version. On page 86 there is a sentence which says that Aramis looked at his watch. It made me wonder whether watches were prevalent in the 17th century, at the time the events of this story happened. Again I took the help of our old friend Wikipedia and discovered that pocket watches with glass covering the face were used from around 1610. Quite interesting!

 

Another thing that I noticed was that when the story starts Dumas tells us that the King has musketeers while the Cardinal has guards, who are the musketeers’ competitors. M. de Tréville tells D’Artagnan that he has to work for two years and needs to have a distinguished service before he can become a musketeer. In due course, D’Artagnan becomes a musketeer. In the last scene of the book, Cardinal Richelieu promotes D’Artagnan from a normal musketeer to a lieutenant. How did the cardinal get the power to promote a musketeer when it was really under the domain of M. de Tréville and the King? It looked to me that Dumas slipped up there.

 

I also did my favourite thing – check the book and find out where it stood on the American vs British spelling debate. Richard Pevear is American and so the book is generally consistent and uses American spelling (I read the American edition), but in one place Pevear slips up. In page 69, M.de Tréville says “I don’t advise you to risk it.” So far so good. But the next sentence goes like this – “The advice was too reasonable…” – this is the kind of fine distinction between the verb advise and the noun advice which only a British writer will make and which British spelling demands. I felt happy when I spotted this. I would have made a good editor, I think 🙂

 

Dumas ties up all the loose ends at the end of the story – the good guys win and the baddies are either defeated or come over to the good side. But I was unhappy about one thing. While through most of the story, Cardinal Richelieu, Rochefort and Milady conspired together, in the end it is Milady who pays the price while the Cardinal and Rochefort get away with it. I wanted to ask Dumas – “If the bad guys are all men, then they can change in the end and get together with the good guys and redeem themselves and everything is hunky dory for everyone, while if the bad person is a woman then she doesn’t have any redemption and she should be executed – is that what you are saying? What kind of sexist ending is that?” I even got a little bit angry when I thought about it. I can’t remember the last time I felt so sympathetic for a villain.

 

I have watched the Gene Kelly movie version of the novel before. I want to watch it again. I also want to watch the other versions – the version where Charlie Sheen plays the role of D’Artagnan (I think he would be perfect for that role) and the more recent one where Christoph Waltz plays the role of Cardinal Richelieu (isn’t he the perfect person to play that role? Has Hollywood found its perfect villain?) I also wonder who plays the role of Milady in these three versions. I can imagine Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck playing it in the original version. I have to watch it again to find out.

 

I enjoyed reading ‘The Three Musketeers’. The re-reading was quite interesting, because I discovered complex depths in some of my favourite characters which I didn’t notice during my previous readings. Pevear’s introduction describes an anecdote from Dumas’ life, which I will quote here. It goes like this :

 

In 1868, Dumas’s health began to fail. One day his son came to see him and found him absorbed in reading. When he asked what book it was, Dumas replies, “The Musketeers…I always promised myself that, when I was old, I’d decide if it was worth anything.”

      “Well, where are you?”

      “At the end.”

      “And what do you think?”

      “It’s good.”

      Indeed it is – to the joy of countless generations of readers.

 

That anecdote made me smile. I couldn’t agree more with that sentiment.

 

If you haven’t read Dumas’ ‘The Three Musketeers’, I would encourage you to do that. It is not a slim novel – at 673 pages the edition I read was bigger than the typical novel I read – but it is fun to read and gives hours of reading pleasure. I always knew that ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ also features our heroes from ‘The Three Musketeers’, but recently while doing some research, I discovered that there are two sequels to ‘The Three Musketeers’‘Twenty Years Later’ and ‘The Vicomte de Bragelonne’. And the chunksterish ‘The Vicomte de Bragelonne’ is itself divided into three volumes – ‘The Vicomte de Bragelonne’, ‘Louise de la Vallière’ and ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’. I hope to read these sequels one day soon and follow the subsequent adventures of D’Artagnan and his friends.

 

Have you read Alexandre Dumas’ ‘The Three Musketeers’ or seen any of the movie versions? What do you think about it?

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I first encountered ‘Les Misérables’ by Victor Hugo, when I was in school. I read an excerpt from the book, which was about how Jean Valjean steals the silverware from Bishop Myriel’s house and when the police catches him, the Bishop bails him out by saying that he gifted them to Jean Valjean. I can’t remember whether I read it in an anthology or whether it was part of my English textbook. I also remember the classic way in which the book is introduced – that it is about Jean Valjean who was sent to prison for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread. I always wanted to read the rest of the story and find out what happened to Jean Valjean after the bishop helped him, but I never got around to that. I also remember, during schooldays, seeing an abridged version of ‘Les Misérables’ at a friend’s place. When I asked my friend about it, he said that it was his favourite book and he read it once every couple of months. I admired his passion for the book when he told me that. I remember wanting to borrow the book from him at that time, but I can’t remember whether I actually borrowed it or not. When I got in touch with this friend again sometime back, after many years, I asked him whether he still read ‘Les Misérables’ once every two months. He smiled and said that he didn’t have the time now. He is one of the leading surgeons in the city now, and so is hard-pressed for time, but behind the face of the famous surgeon I could see that young boy who used to read ‘Les Misérables’ passionately and take an adventurous and heartbreaking roller coaster ride with Jean Valjean.  

 

A couple of weeks back, I had a strong impulse to open some old boxes with books in them. Some of these boxes were ten years old. I have shied away from them because I knew that if I opened one of them it will be like opening Pandora’s box – I will want to take all the books out and read all of them. There was also no room in the house for more books as books were already overflowing from the shelves onto the floor. But I couldn’t resist the temptation this time and opened one of those old boxes. Inside the box, on top, was Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables’. With the film version creating waves right now, I couldn’t resist taking out the book and starting to read it. It is 1260 pages long and so it is a real chunkster. Whenever I finish it, it will be the second longest book that I have ever read, replacing ‘Gone with the Wind’ which currently occupies that position at 1100+ pages. I thought I will ‘test read’ it for a couple of days and see how it went and then decide whether to continue reading it further. Before I knew, I was hooked to it. The book has five parts and I finished reading the first part of the book yesterday.  Here is what I think about the first part.

Les Miserables By Victor Hugo

  • Victor Hugo published ‘Les Misérables’ when he was nearly sixty. That is really interesting.
  • The first fifty pages of the book talk about Bishop Myriel. Jean Valjean makes an appearance in the book only after fifty pages.
  • Bishop Myriel is one of the noblest characters that I have ever encountered in a novel. Probably the noblest ever. Someone who gives away everything he has to the poor, sick and the needy, someone who thinks that all human beings have a good heart and who changes the hearts of thieves and robbers with his thinking, someone who doesn’t have the trappings of power but lives a very simple life.
  • The popular version of Jean Valjean’s story is that he was sent to prison for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread. But while reading the book, I discovered that Jean Valjean was sent to prison for five years for stealing a loaf of bread. It is still bad. His sentence was increased everytime he tried to escape from prison and he ended up being in prison for nineteen years.  
  • The second name of Jean Valjean is probably a short version of ‘Voilà Jean’.
  • The first part of the book, ‘Fantine’, has two plot arcs. The first is the story of Bishop Myriel and how Jean Valjean meets him for the first time after getting released from prison and how that encounter transforms Jean Valjean’s life, how Jean Valjean takes on a new identity and is called Monsieur Madeleine and works hard and becomes a rich man and even becomes the mayor of his city and how a police inspector called Javert suspects the truth about Monsieur Madeleine’s past. The second plot arc is about a young woman called Fantine who is abandoned by her lover when she is pregnant and how she has to leave her child in the care of strangers when her child is three years old to go to work, how her child suffers in her foster home and how Fantine’s life itself takes a downward spiral. The two plot arcs come together when Monsieur Madeleine has to confront Inspector Javert to save Fantine from being imprisoned and things become complicated after that and the situation comes to such a pass that Monsieur Madeleine has to reveal his own past and get arrested to prevent an innocent person from being framed.
  • At some point in the story, I felt that Monsieur Madeleine started resembling Bishop Myriel – the noble soul who works for the community and who gives money away to the poor.
  • There is a mention of Madame de Staël and Madame de Lafayette in the story J
  • While reading the book, I discovered that the pages were moving very slowly. I thought initially that I was reading slowly. But after a while, I thought maybe there was something else in the book. I decided to do something interesting. I counted the number of words on a typical page of the book. Then I took out some books that I read recently and some books which I thought might have a lot of words in a page and carried out the same exercise on them. This is what I discovered :

 

No. of words in a page :

 

Les Misérables – 535 words

In Search of Lost Time – 372 words

Le Pere Goriot – 400 words

Unformed Landscape – 282 words

 

Those numbers told an interesting story. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it first, but it looks like ‘Les Misérables’ probably has the highest word density (number of words per page) out of the books I have. No wonder, the reading was slow going.

  • The character of Inspector Javert is quite interesting for a particular reason. There used to be an old Tamil writer and actor called ‘Javer Seetharaman’. He was probably the first writer to write horror novels in Tamil. He also acted as a detective in movies, the most famous of which is ‘Andha Naal’ (‘That Day’). I used to wonder where his name ‘Javer’ came from because it is not a Tamil name. Now after reading about Inspector Javert, I can see the source of the inspiration.
  • Victor Hugo’s picture on the cover of the book seems to indicate that he is a serious man who smiles rarely. The book though says otherwise. There are lots of beautiful passages which describe children and insightful passages with gentle prose and beautiful thoughts. Clearly appearances are deceptive.
  • I discovered a chronological inconsistency in the story. When Fantine gets pregnant, it is the year 1817. When she leaves her daughter Cossette with the Thénardiers, Cossette is two or three years old. Then she goes to work in Monsieur Madeleine’s factory in another city. This year is indicated to be 1818. A simple calculation reveals that this is not possible. It should be atleast 1820 or 1821, depending on whether Cossette was two or three years old at that time, when Fantine goes to work in the factory. This inconsistency with respect to Fantine’s life continues till the end of part 1. I don’t know whether Victor Hugo missed it out here or whether there is a problem in the edition I have or whether there was a problem in translation. If Victor Hugo got it wrong, I am sure there are papers written by literary critics which describe how and why he got it wrong or even how he is right inspite of being chronologically inconsistent and what he actually meant by getting the years deliberately wrong.
  • I also discovered a few typos in the edition of the book I read. For example, there is a chapter called ‘Some Account of the Diaries of Pontarlier’ in which the ‘diaries’ should really be ‘dairies’. In another place, there is this sentence – ‘the services that he rendered to the region where so brilliant’, which should really be ‘…were so brilliant’. It looks like the eagle-eyed editor’s pencil was taking a break for a while. It is always fun to catch the words which escape the editor’s pencil 🙂
  • I loved the first part of the book, ‘Fantine’. There are interesting anecdotes, noble characters, beautiful passages, sad events and a tragic ending. I can’t wait to find out what happens to Jean Valjean next.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

…they were students, and to say student is to say Parisian; to study in Paris is to be born in Paris.

 

Table talk and lovers’ talk equally elude the grasp; lovers’ talk is clouds, table talk is smoke.

 

Let us say by the way, to be blind and to be loved, is in fact, in this earth where nothing is complete, one of the most strangely exquisite forms of happiness…You see nothing, but you feel adored. It is a paradise of darkness.

 

There is one spectacle grander than the sea, that is the sky; there is one spectacle grander than the sky, that is the interior of the soul.

 

It is certain that we talk with ourselves; there is not a thinking being who has not experienced that. We may say even that the word is never a more magnificent mystery than when it goes, in the interior of a man, from his thought to his conscience, and returns from his conscience to his thought. It is in this sense only that the words must be understood, so often employed in this chapter, he said, he exclaimed; we say to ourselves, we speak to ourselves, we exclaim within ourselves, the external silences not being broken. There is a great tumult within; everything within us speaks, except the tongue. The realities of the soul, because they are not visible and palpable, are not the less realities.

 

Diamonds are found only in the dark places of the earth; truths are found only in the depth of thought. It seemed to him that after having descended into these depths, after having groped long in the blackest of this darkness, he had at last found one of these diamonds, one of these truths, and that he held it in his hand; and it blinded him to look at it.

 

To sum up, events were rare in his life. We relate those we know of; but usually he passed his life in always doing the same things at the same hours. A month of his year was like an hour of his day.

 

What was more needed by this old man who divided the leisure hours of his life, where he had so little leisure, between gardening in the day time, and contemplation at night? Was not this narrow inclosure, with the sky for a background, enough to enable him to adore God in his most beautiful as well as in his most sublime works? Indeed, is not that all, and what more can be desired? A little garden to walk, and immensity to reflect upon. At his feet something to cultivate and gather; above his head something to study and meditate upon; a few flowers on the earth, and all the stars in the sky.

 

These are true pleasures. These passages in the lives of happy couples are a profound appeal to life and nature, and call forth endearment and light from everything. There was once upon a time a fairy, who created meadows and trees expressly for lovers. Hence comes that eternal school among the groves for lovers, which is always opening, and which will last so long as there are thickets and pupils. Hence comes the popularity of spring among thinkers. The patrician and the knife-grinder, the duke and peer, and the peasant, the men of the court, and the men of the town, as was said in olden times, all are subjects of this fairy. They laugh, they seek each other, the air seems filled with a new brightness; what a transfiguration is it to love! Notary clerks are gods. And the little shrieks, the pursuits among the grass, the waists encircled by stealth, that jargon which is melody, that adoration which breaks forth in a syllable, those cherries snatched from one pair of lips by another – all kindle up, and become transformed into celestial glories. Beautiful girls lavish their charms with sweet prodigality. We fancy that it will never end. Philosophers, poets, painters behold these ecstasies and know not what to make of them. So dazzling are they. The departure for Cythera! Exclaims Watteau; Lancret, the painter of the commonalty, contemplates his bourgeois soaring in the sky; Diderot stretches out his arms to all these loves, and d’Urfé associates them with the Druids.

 

Have you read ‘Les Misérables’ by Victor Hugo? What do you think about it?

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While stepping into this year, I realized that I haven’t read a lot of French literature. This thought was born when I read ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ by Julian Barnes and it intensified over the past few weeks. So, I thought I will read more French books this year – do a sort of French themed reading this year – in addition to reading my regular favourites, English, American and German books. So, I looked at my bookshelf and took out books which were written by French authors. They were not that many when compared to the English books I have, but there were a surprisingly good number of them. Then I did some research, asked some friends, asked some fellow book bloggers about French literature and got more books. Finally I decided on my first French book of the year. It was ‘Le Père Goriot’ by Honoré de Balzac. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

Pere Goriot By Honore De Balzac

‘Le Père Goriot’ is set in a boarding house in a not-so-sophisticated district in early 19th century Paris. The story follows the lives of some of the boarders in the boarding house. There are two main stories that the book focuses on, however. One is that of an old man who loves his daughters so much that he is ready to do anything to make them happy. He helps them get married to rich men, gives away all his wealth to them, and even after his daughters ignore him when they realize that he doesn’t have anything, he goes on loving them and helping them whenever they are in trouble. The other main story is about a young man Eugène Rastignac, who comes to Paris to study law and who sees the glamour and flamboyance of Parisian society through the help of his distant cousin Madame de Beauséant. Madame de Beauséant helps him in getting introduced to Madame de Nucingen and Eugène promptly falls in love with her. But Parisian society extracts its own price from Eugene as he ignores his studies and his condition oscillates between having a lot of money in his pocket and being in the company of fashionable Parisians and being in deep debt. Eugène also discovers that Madame de Nucingen is Goriot’s daughter. What comes of Goriot’s love for his daughters and Eugène’s love for Madame de Nucingen form the rest of the story.

 

‘Le Père Goriot’ was my first Balzac and so I was really excited about it. I am glad to have picked it up because I loved the book. The story of Goriot had shades of ‘King Lear’ and the ending was tragic as expected. But the more interesting story strand for me was that of Eugène Rastignac, who comes from a village to Paris to study and hoping to make a living there. There is something romantic about a small town man trying to make it big in the city. There is also something tragic about how he loses his innocence, succumbs to the temptations of the city and its ways and it is painful to watch him go through crises of conscience at the end of which most times he makes the decision which is practical but which more or less kills his simple, innocent provincial self. It is fascinating to read what happens to Eugène Rastignac. If we strip away the specifics – early 19th century Paris, the salon culture, the balls and the parties – and move the story to the 21st century world of today, it still works, it is still powerful and it still makes one think. That, I think, is the genius of Balzac. I also loved Balzac’s prose – I have to digress a little bit here. When we say we love a writer’s prose, we probably mean one or more of these things – the wordplay, the images described, the similes and the metaphors and the insights provided by the writer in which we are able to see ourselves or our own world. I am not sure about the wordplay in this book, because a lot of it is lost in translation, but I loved the other three aspects of Balzac’s prose.

 

My favourite characters in the story were Eugène Rastignac, Madame de Nucingen (she is alternately noble and selfish, which makes her a really fascinating character) and Vautrin. Vautrin is, supposedly, the villain of the story. Interestingly, he speaks some of the most powerful lines in the story. I liked Vautrin very much for his wise words, for his confidence and for his loyalty to friends.

 

After reading ‘Le Père Goriot’, I read an essay on the book and on Balzac by Somerset Maugham (it is featured in the book ‘Ten Novels and their Authors’). Most of the essay was about Balzac and a little bit of it was about the book. Maugham says interesting things about Balzac, things like these :

 

  • Of all the great novelists that have enriched with their works the spiritual treasures of the world, Balzac is to my mind the greatest. He is the only one to whom I would without hesitation ascribe genius.
  • Like all novelists, he wrote of the wicked more successfully than of the good.
  • It is generally conceded the he wrote badly…Balzac had no feeling for the elegance of his native tongue.
  • He was not a novelist for nothing; every experience, even the most humiliating, was grist to his mill;

 

Some of the above observations look contradictory (Balzac fans will definitely dispute the claim that he wrote badly and had no feel for the elegance of his native language), but when read in context in the Maugham essay, they ring true.

 

I also read a little bit about Balzac’s project of combining all his work into one project called ‘La Comédie humaine’ with the result that many of the characters in one book make appearances in other books. This was probably the origin of the modern serialized story – one story followed by multiple sequels. Though I am guessing that Balzac didn’t plan them as sequels but as stories which depicted the lives of people in the Paris of that time and though some characters make appearances in multiple books, the main characters in different books are different.

 

I have to also say something else about Balzac. One of the first things I read about Balzac was his love for coffee. I read this in Anne Fadiman’s essay called ‘Coffee’ (featured in her essay collection, ‘At Large and At Small’). This is what the essay said.

 

  But in the realm of twitching eyeballs, even Stewart Lee Allen can’t hold a candle to Honoré de Balzac, the model for every espresso-swilling writer who has followed in his jittery footsteps. What hashish was to Baudelaire, opium to Coleridge, cocaine to Robert Louis Stevenson, nitrous oxide to Robert Southey, mescaline to Aldous Huxley, and Benzedrine to Jack Kerouac, caffeine was to Balzac. The habit started early. Like a preppie with an expensive connection, he ran up alarming debts with a concierge who, for a price, was willing to sneak contraband coffee beans into Balzac’s boarding school. As an adult, grinding out novels eighteen hours a day while listening for the rap of creditors at the door, Balzac observed the addict’s classic regimen, boosting his doses as his tolerance mounted. First he drank one cup a day, then a few cups, then many cups, then forty cups. Finally, by using less and less water, he increased the concentration of each fix until he was eating dry coffee grounds : “a horrible, rather brutal method,” he wrote, “that I recommend only to men of excessive vigor, men with thick black hair and skin covered with liver spots, men with big square hands and legs shaped like bowling pins.” Although the recipe was hell on the stomach, it dispatched caffeine to the brain with exquisite efficiency.

 

From that moment on, everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink.

 

      Could that passage have been written on decaf?

 

      Balzac’s coffeepot is displayed at 47 rue Raynouard in Paris, where he lived for much of his miserable last decade, writing La Cousine Bette and Le Cousin Pons, losing his health, and escaping bill collectors through a secret door. My friend Adam (who likes his espresso strong but with sugar) visited the house a few years ago. “The coffeepot is red and white china,” he wrote me, “and bears Balzac’s monogram. It’s an elegant, neat little thing, almost nautical in appearance. I can imagine it reigning serenely over the otherwise-general squalor of his later life, a small pharos of caffeine amid the gloom.”

 

We are all coffee lovers at home and so when I first read this passage, I thought I will read it aloud to my mother. When she heard it she said that she did exactly what Balzac did to make the coffee strong! Both of us started laughing J

 

I am glad that I read my first Balzac. I loved the experience. I can’t wait to read more. The other three Balzac books I have in my collection are ‘Lost Illusions’ (at around 700 pages, it is a mini-chunkster), ‘Droll Stories’ and ‘The Girl with the Golden Eyes’ (novella). I am hoping to get to them soon.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

“The world is loathsome and wicked. As soon as some misfortune befalls us there is always a friend ready to come and tell us about it, probing our heart with a dagger while inviting us to admire the handle.”

 

Like many people bored with life, almost the only pleasure left for Monsieur de Beauséant to enjoy was eating well.

 

“Our heart is a treasure chest, and if you suddenly empty it out you are ruined. We don’t forgive someone for revealing the full depth of their feelings, any more than someone without a penny of his own. This father had given away all he had. For twenty years he had given his whole heart, his love, he had given away his whole fortune in a single day. When they had squeezed the lemon dry his daughters flung the peel into the gutter.”

 

…she was like so many people who mistrust those close to them and confide in the first stranger they meet. A curious, but true fact about behaviour whose origin is readily identifiable in the human heart. Perhaps certain people have nothing more to gain from those with whom they live; once they have revealed to them their inner emptiness they feel that they are being secretly judged with well-deserved severity, but, desperately craving the compliments they need, or obsessed with the desire to look as though they possess qualities which they do not, they hope to win by surprise the esteem or affection of strangers, at the risk of one day forfeiting it. There are also individuals who are born mercenary and do nothing to benefit their nearest and dearest, just because that is their duty, whereas by rendering some service to strangers they feel better pleased with themselves. The closer the circle of their friends or relatives is to them the less they like them, the wider the circle extends the more obliging they are. Madame Vauquer no doubt had something of both these natural types, essentially mean, false and detestable.

 

Have you read ‘Le Père Goriot’? What do you think about it?

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