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Category Archives: French Lit

Germinal

9780199536894

Part of Émile Zola’s Rougon-Marquart series, Germinal is set in a mining town in 19th century France. The title comes from the new Republic’s calendar, it’s the name of month in spring when things start sprouting. Whatever you might imagine the life of a miner to be like, it was far worse in France. At times I had to put the book down, because it was just too heart-breaking to read about the suffering people endured.

The hero is Étienne Lantier who arrives in town seeking work. Trained as a mechanic, Étienne accepts the only work available, working in the mines. Pay’s low so he moves in with a mining family and shares a room with Catherine, their teenage daughter to whom he’s attracted. But love is not in the offing. Catherine’s jus 14 and her poor diet has stunted her maturation, but she’s involved with Chaval, a boy, who also works in the mine. Brutish and abusive, Chaval is a product of the mines, not the sort of boyfriend who can respect a girl. Respect though is a luxury item, just like a good meal. Like all their peers, Chaval and Catherine work all day in a back-breaking environment and spend their nights having sex in a kind of quarry. The young and old’s spirits have been crushed and there’s no hope, romance or joy. Life offers few choices so if you’re pregnant and your boyfriend beats you, you put up with it. Life’s about survival.

The work and environment is described in acute detail. Work was arduous in the sweltering mines. Pay was so low that children had to work. Encouraged by Étienne and a couple others who’ve read up on socialism and labor rights, the miners go on strike. Then the oppression reaches new lows. They’re tough and dedicated, but are soon starving as their pooled savings run out. As you’d expect the workers’ pay gets reduced and their expected output increased. The owners are far off in Paris. The mine’s run by managers who’re well paid, but have no power. Miners and their families start to die. Some return to work and violence ensues. Just as things appear to improve more disaster, disaster based on a true event, strikes.

Each day I looked forward to reading more of this gripping story, but then would have to put it down as the hardship was unbearable, worse than other stories of coal mingling like King Coal by Upton Sinclair. I appreciated Zola’s descriptions and how he portrayed his era with such clarity. (Though when people were moving through the mines it was hard to grasp how extensive they were.)

To his credit, Zola doesn’t glorify the miner’s and vilify the managers and elite. There’s plenty of realism and fairness to go round. I appreciated Zola’s prose and his complex characters.  I read that Zola researched Germinal painstakingly and even went into the mines to see the conditions.

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Posted by on April 8, 2018 in 19th Century, book review, fiction, French Lit

 

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2018 Reading Challenge

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I’ve made up a reading challenge for myself. I have done Goodreads.com‘s challenges where I read a certain number of books per month. This time I’m adding some themes and other specifics to spice things up.

Susan’s 2018 Reading Challenge

January – read a memoir and another book that’ll help me change my outlook (i.e. achieve a resolution)

February – read a 19th century novel and a religious book

March – read a book written by a Russian author

April – read a play by Shakespeare and commentary in a Norton Classic edition

May – read a detective story

June – read a book of historical fiction

July – read a travel book

August – read a humorous book

September – read a book by a Japanese author

October – read something scary

November – read a book a friend has recommended

December – read a children’s book and a story or book with a Christmas theme

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2018 in book lovers, British Lit, British literature, Children's Lit, fiction, French Lit, humor, non-fiction, play, Travel Writing

 

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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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