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Category Archives: French Lit

The Kill

emile-zola-the-kill

Émile Zola continues his stories of the Rougon-Marquart clan with The Kill (La Curée), which tells the story of Aristide Rougon, who is introduced to readers in The Fortune of the Rougon-Marquart’s as a slothful (accent on full) son of the matriarch of this clan. Aristide changes his name to Saccard when the gets to Paris. He hits his well connected brother to get a cushy government job with loads of status. He’s disappointed at first with apparently low level job till he realizes that he will get all sorts of information on city plans that enable him to make real estate deals, quite questionably ethically ones, that will get him a fortune. Saccard is slimy for sure, but the house of cards he sets up is compelling. As a reader, I was just wondering when this all would fall.

Along with Saccard, his second wife Renée is equally questionable ethically. She’s materialistic, superficial, self absorbed and incapable of loyalty. The marriage was arranged to get Renée out of trouble. Her early life was pitiful, but by the time of the story she’s in control and for much of the story rather powerful and independent. Her undoing is her relationship with Saccard’s son.

The writing is beautiful and this portrait of a corrupt society feels real and moves quickly. It was fascinating to learn about the corrupt real estate market of 19th century France Wall Street didn’t invent financial malfeasance..

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Posted by on February 8, 2017 in 19th Century, fiction, French Lit

 

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Eugenie Grandet

By Honoré Balzac, Eugenie Grandet had a plot that surprised me. A friend suggested reading and discussing this novel online and I’m glad he did. For most of the book I wondered why it was entitled Eugenie Grandet because for 85-90% of the book is dominated by her father’s character.

Set in the provinces, early on readers meet Monsieur Grandet a miser who counts every egg and sugar cube in his pantry. He’s a shrewd businessman who constantly cries poor. His neighbours distrust and dislike him and pit his wife, daughter Eugenie and servant Nanon, who live like peasants in a cold, dark house eating meagre rations and going along without complaint as justified as it would be.

Since Eugenie is of marriageable age, and clearly would inherit father’s fortune, two families compete so their son will win her hand — and possibly heart. The marriage race is neck and neck and Papa Grandet enjoys the futile race, which he knows no one can win since he has no plans to agree with either proposal.

When a rich Parisian cousin Charles comes to visit, Eugenie falls in love and her father wonders how the Parisian social status can help him. When papa gets a letter from his Parisian brother admitting that he’s lost all his money and since he’s bankrupt will commit suicide, the Grandet’s household is turned upside down. Eugenie, whose grown up more or less in seclusion sympathises and falls for her cousin (marrying cousins was okay back then). Though he’s got a high class love back in Paris, he’s struck by Eugenie’s pure love. Still Charles must go to the New World to earn some money and restore his father’s reputation.

Balzac gives us a witty insider’s view of each character taking us down an original story path. Monsieur Grandet dominates the story and his daughter’s life even after he’s dead.

Though Papa Grandet is a one dimensional character, the story is witty and absorbing, well worth reading.

 
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Posted by on January 10, 2016 in 19th Century, book review, fiction, French Lit

 

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The Ladies’ Paradise

Ladies Paradise

In November my book club read Émile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames which Bill Gallagher’s BBC TV series The Paradise was based on. I loved this book!

It’s quite a bit different, and darker than the BBC program. Denise, the heroine, comes to Paris after her father dies with her two brothers. They’d tried to make ends meet for a year after their father died, but finally had to see they’d never stay afloat in the countryside. Besides Jean, Denise’s teenage brother was dabbling in some dangerous liaisons that were getting him into trouble. Throughout the novel Denise faces greater hardships with higher stakes since her brothers depend on her financially than Denise Lovett on TV.

When they arrive at their uncle’s home cum shop, they find out he’s been having tough times like all the little shops due to the emergence of a white marble monster that’s revolutionizing and ravaging commerce. The Paradise keeps growing and Zola depicts it as a machine that almost has a life. It’s a machine that consumes — its employees, its rivals and in some cases its customers who spend more than they can afford. The machine creates strife and desire and seems unstoppable.

Denise is intrigued by the store and there is no where else for her to work. The uncle has a wife, daughter, shop assistant, who’s engaged to his daughter, and some servants. Zola shows a lot about the toll that the price wars with The Ladies’ Paradise, much more than in the TV program. Here lives are a t stake as I’m sure they really were.

In the store, the rivalry and back stabbing is high pitched. Most of the staff sleeps around and plot to get promotions by betraying colleagues. There’s little friendship in the store. The shoppers also seem to jockey for social position, which is all the more noted and crucial based on what you buy and where you shop. Those at the top of the social stratum have their own dressmakers and feel a sting when they learn that these dressmakers now get their silk from The Paradise.

Stealing is a huge problem and even wealthier women can’t resist and get caught. Pregnant women were drawn to stealing the most. Yet there is an attraction to the lush fabrics and fashions. Zola masterfully sets up a tension between the enticing beauty of the goods and the disastrous consequences the emporium has on the other shops. The Paradise gobbles up the neighborhood as it expands. We also see how wonderful the handmade goods were, how you could buy an umbrella with a hand-carved handle that looked like a parrot or some whimsical creature.

While I’ve enjoyed the BBC series, I found Zola’s writing, which I’ve been told isn’t his best, to be absorbing and exciting. I now want to read all 20 of his novels in his series Les Rougon-Macquart which chronicles the history of the legitimate and illegitimate sides of a French family.

According to my sources (i.e. Wikipedia) Octave Mouret’s family figures into the earlier books. Yet you can pick this novel up and not feel you missed anything.

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2014 in classic, French Lit

 

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Now Reading

zola

I’m now reading and very wrapped up in Emile Zola’s A Ladies’ Paradise, which the Masterpiece The Paradise is based on. Wow!

The story’s quite different as it’s set in Paris and Denise’s parents died leaving her with two brothers to look after and very little money. Thus she heads to her uncle in Paris, who’s a draper as in the television series. This uncle has more i.e. some customers and yet is more furious at Mouret (Moray on TV). Zola’s Mouret starts out as such a philanderer, with lots of contempt for women. I can see why the TV show lessened that aspect of his character. It’s just amazing to read about how huge the store is and how it’s run.

sin second cityI’m also reading another Horatio Alger book. Again, I’ve just started the story, Joe’s Luck. Joe’s an orphan and a servant in small town New Jersey. He’s had it with the ill treatment of a miserly employer and heads to New York hoping to get on a ship to California while the Gold Rush is in full swing. Just now poor Joe was swindled out of the money for the ship’s ticket.

I’m also in the midst of a book on the Everleigh sisters who ran a high class, super high class brothel in turn of the 20th century Chicago. The Everleigh Club’s opulence is unmatched and the tales! Whoo. The girls. The men. The antics! Often beyond imagination.

 
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Posted by on November 5, 2014 in American Lit, classic, fiction, French Lit, history, Masterpiece Theater

 

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Madame Bovary, Part 2

I felt reading this time to have more sympathy for Charles (and Berthe, who pays the highest price in the end). It’s no crime to be mediocre. Actually, that’s a strength of the novel and Vargas Llosa in The Perpetual Orgy, a book of essays on his favorite novel contends that this is the first modern novel because it centers on the ordinary in a way that other novels hadn’t. Other novels dealt with ordinary characters and circumstances but always made them heroic is some way. Flaubert didn’t. Ironically, that is what annoyed me most about Emma. She was so ordinary, so overly appraised by her husband and in different ways her lovers, even Rodolph overestimates her in the beginning. I saw her like Daisy Buchanan, a pretty, but empty vessel.

Flaubert wrote a lot about the ordinary in his letters. He wrote to his lover that “Beautiful subjects make mediocre works” and “It is not in fact great misfortunes that are to be feared in life, but minor ones. I am more afraid of pinpricks than of saber blows. . . . we have no need of continual acts of devotion and sacrifices, yet constantly need from others at least the outward signs of friendship and affection, in a word, kind attentions and politeness.”

But I want to say to him, Emma’s problem was living in a society that preferred appearances and her own desire for a sophisticated life that really existed only in her dreams.

Actually, a lot was in my head as I read the book this time. I was in my early twenties the first time I read it and aside from the good style and character descriptions, I didn’t get that much out of it. I just hadn’t lived that long and I don’t think I really had any life experience that informed my reading.

Then I read it again with a book group at a Barnes and Noble. I recall our discussion as centering around the humor in the book and one guy quipped that Madame Bovary shows that reading can be detrimental. We forget how people looked down on reading novels the first century or two they were around.

This reading I still appreciated how funny parts were and how well Flaubert writes, but it wasn’t as easy to read, I had to think more about the themes and Emma and the author’s aim and I’m still mulling all this over.

Then there’s the predatory lender Lheureux, who basically bundled Emma’s loans adding to her financial troubles. Talk about timely. It’s interesting that money and love go so hand in hand in Madame Bovary.

I was harder on Emma than I had been before because now I’ve known people who’ve lived through infidelity and I’ve seen the pain it causes. I can’t trivialize it. I wanted to tell Emma, “Okay, your life isn’t what you dreamed, but nothing is. Thank God, you’re not begging in the street or stricken with a disease.”

I do think she needed community. She had no one in her corner who’d also be real with her. In part, she didn’t seem to seek that out. Was life like that in small town France? The Bovary’s didn’t live on a prairie miles and miles from neighbors. I do feel I need to know more about the culture of the day before I judge her, but she really isn’t sympathetic or heroic. I suppose as Vargas Llosa points out she’s the first anti-hero.

I wonder about Flaubert. He had a long time affair, and a few trysts, biographers now think. Emma takes a lot of people down with her and this seems so at odds with his living. I know it’s not the first time for such a tension within a person and I actually think it may be essential to having an affair, this kind of double life.

Finally, Vargas Llosa makes some interesting points about beauty and violence. He points out that there’s a lot of violence in the book, not just Emma’s suicide but the disastrous surgery, the spiritual violence of Lheureux preying on the Bovary’s “down to their last sou,” the derogatory murmuring criticizing Catherine at the agricultural fair for donating her winnings to the church when she desperately needed money, all the prejudices, envy, and intrigue presented in the book. Vargas Llosa says he really doesn’t like stories that don’t contain violence; they don’t come across as real to him. What do you think? Do you agree?

 
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Posted by on August 5, 2012 in classic, French Lit, World Lit

 

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Madame Bovary, Part 1

My online book club read Madame Bovary for July. This was my third time through the novel and each time I have a different experience. I found a book of essays on Madame Bovary by novelist Mario Vargas Llosa called The Perpetual Orgy. Vargas Llosa has a real thing for this novel and credits repeated readings with saving his life. (I’ll review The Perpetual Orgy next week.)

What about Emma Bovary? Is she a heroine? Does she deserve our pity? Scorn? Sympathy? I’d say she’s an anti-hero. She’s an outsider who makes such bad choices. She is her own worst enemy.
This time around I wondered why Charles was such a weak person. I find I get drawn in more to stories where all characters are strong as they tend to be in say an argument between two Aaron Sorkin creations. Here Emma just isn’t a good match for Charles. Yet does is she justified in her infidelity? What is Flaubert’s aim here I wondered.
I did learn that Flaubert had an affair for several years and based Emma’s character on his lover,
I also found a little background information from The Writer’s Almanac:
. . . Gustave Flaubert (1821) (books by this author), born in Rouen, France. He was a notorious perfectionist in his work, and once said, “I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it.” In 1851, he began what would become his first published novel, and his masterpiece. Five years later, Madame Bovary (1856) appeared in La Revue de Paris in serialized form. It’s the story of Emma, a doctor’s wife, who is dissatisfied with her life and longs to experience the passion, excitement, and luxury she has only read about in novels. She has two long-term affairs, accrues insurmountable debt, and ultimately takes her own life with arsenic.
From Madame Bovary, chapter nine: “Deep down in her heart, she was waiting and waiting for something to happen. Like a shipwrecked mariner, she gazed out wistfully over the wide solitude of her life, if so be she might catch the white gleam of a sail away on the dim horizon. She knew not what it would be, this longed-for barque; what wind would waft it to her, or to what shores it would bear her away. She knew not if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, burdened with anguish or freighted with joy. But every morning when she awoke she hoped it would come that day.”
A month after the final installment of Madame Bovary was published, the French government banned the book, and hauled Flaubert up on charges of offending public and religious morality. Flaubert and his lawyers defended the book, saying that, by exposing vice, the novel was actually promoting virtue. Flaubert was narrowly acquitted, and Madame Bovary was published in book form two months later. The publicity and scandal of the trial contributed to its success.
Flaubert wrote: “It is a delicious thing to write, to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating. Today, for instance, as man and woman, both lover and mistress, I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I was also the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people uttered, even the red sun that made them almost close their love-drowned eyes.”
I’ll add more tomorrow.
 
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Posted by on August 4, 2012 in classic, French Lit

 

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What Are You Reading? Monday

 Book Journey‘s author ” love[s] being a part of this and I hope you do too!  As part of this weekly meme I love to encourage you all to go and visit the others participating in this meme.  I offer a weekly contest for those who visit 10 or more of the Monday Meme participants and leave a comment telling me how many you visited.”

I’m almost finished with Madame Bovary, which I’m reading for my book club for the third time. Expect a review soon. I started We, the Russian novel that inspired George Orwell to write 1984. It’s very cool.

In nonfiction I’m reading a biography of a real life Cora Crawley from Downton Abbey. It’s American Jenny: The Remarkable Life of Lady Randolph Churchill, the American who married Lord Churchill and whose son Winston became Prime Minister.

Finally, I’m reading Beyond the Mushroom Cloud by my friend Yuki Miyamoto. It’s an excellent book that makes you rethink forgiveness, remembrance and the atomic bomb.

 

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