Category Archives: France
November has suddenly become rather attractive. Lovers of Emile Zola’s novels will want their ears glued to BBC Radio later this month when the Beeb begins their new new series, Emile Zola: Blood, Sex and Money. It’s a 27-episode “mash-up” of adaptations from the Rougon-Macquart novel sequence, which traces the fortunes and fates of the Rougon, Macquart and Mouret families. the cycle presents its readers with unflinching stories about power, lust, crime and addiction.
The BBC has adapted the novels into three series. The first instalment will be broadcast every day over an “intensive” week on Radio 4 in November. One of the episodes draws on La Bête humaine (The Beast Within) the 17th book in Les Rougon-Macquart series. It’s a superb psychological thriller about insanity and murder in Paris.
Blood, Sex and Money will witness the return of twice Oscar-winner and former MP Glenda Jackson to acting for the first time in 20 years as well as Robert Lindsay and Georgina Campbell. There will be an accompanying documentary, Blood, Sex and Money: The Life and Work of Emile Zola, broadcast on Radio 4 at 4–4.30pm on 16th of November.
You’ll find some additional info here:
This is the work of a skilled wordsmith turning a shrewd eye on a city of increasing tension between the newly restored aristocratic class and the bourgeoisie class resulting from the Industrial Revolution. What Balzac sees is a corrupt, ruthless society that feeds on ambition, money and status.
Into its net steps a young, poor law student from the provinces. Eugène de Rastignac is determined to climb the ladder to wealth and status. He is undeterred by his lack of money (he simply exploits his poor mother and sisters by persuading them to sell their jewels) but he has a valuable connection through his cousin Madame de Beauséant. She tutors him in the ways of high society, advising him bluntly that to succeed he must put aside his previous character.
The more cold-blooded your calculations, the further you will go. Strike ruthlessly; you will be feared. Men and women for you must be nothing more than post-horses; take a fresh relay, and leave the last to drop by the roadside; in this way you will reach the goal of your ambition.
The further Eugène progresses towards remaking himself, the more he sees that beneath the glitter lies a world of deceit, greed and manipulation and an obsessive love of money.
In the decrepit boarding house where he takes a lodging he experiences another kind of obsession in the shape of a fellow inhabitant, the retired pasta maker, Père Goriot. Once wealthy, the fortune of this old man appears to have melted away and he’s fallen on hard times. He’s a target for snide comments by other lodgers who soon learn that the two young and astonishingly beautiful girls seen entering his room are his daughters. So obsessed with fatherly love, Père Goriot has sacrificed everything he ever owned to indulge these women and help them maintain their status in the salons of the city. He has just one shirt to his name while they run up bills with dressmakers and drive around the city in gilded coaches.
On his deathbed, one of the most pitiful scenes in the novel, Goriot cries out to see his daughters one more time, alternatively berating them for their ingratitude and forgiving them for going to a ball instead of visiting him. Eugène is so touched by the old man’s plight he chases around the city in search of the daughters to persuade them to visit their dying father. In the event, rather than attend Goriot’s funeral, his daughters simply send their empty coaches.
Goriot does at first appear to be a man to be pitied. But ultimately, Balzac makes it evident that Goriot is entirely responsible for this situation, having raised the girls in a way that ensured they would be vain, idle, and grasping women. “The upbringing he gave his daughters was of course preposterous,” we’re told at one point. Far from being the epitomy of fatherhood he has spectacularly failed in his duty to install in them qualities of moral integrity and selflessness. In one of his few moments of lucidity Goriot is forced to acknowledge his culpability: “It was I who made them, they belong to me.”
Goriot’s experience and the reaction of his daughters open Eugène’s eyes still further to the true nature of the society he has aspired to join. But it doesn’t deter him from his path. It means only that he goes forth, no longer an innocent youth, but a man more cynical and calculating, ready to take on the city. Standing on a hill surveying the city laid out beneath him, he shouts a warning “Beware Paris, here I come — ”
There is plenty of drama and fast moving action to be found in this novel with some exciting set pieces. But it’s the meticulous detail in which Balzac describes Père Goriot’s boarding house lodging at Maison Vauquer and the penury of its inhabitants, that most held my attention. The book opens with a lengthy description of this establishment in the old Latin Quartier of Paris. It is not a place where you would relish having to spend even one night. The high garden walls surrounding the house give the impression of entering a prison , its shabby sitting room is full of furniture that is “old, rotten, shaky, cranky, worm-eaten, halt, maimed, one-eyed, rickety, and ramshackle”; the bedrooms are wretched and the nauseating smells from the kitchen permeate the whole place. Sounds wonderful doesn’t it?
For page after page Balzac gives shape and form to this residence and breathes life into its tenants, detailing what brought them through the door of Maison Vauguer, what hopes they have for the future and how they relate to each other. The point isn’t simply to show the individuals involved in the drama but to depict a society patterned after the Parisian one. Here is the city in microcosm where the guests are lodged and treated according to their financial means and social position. Their room within the house changes as their fortunes fluctuate. Goriot himself had started in prime position on the lower ground but as a bankrupt he is despatched to the topmost and most decrepit room. It’s a visible, uncomfortable reminder to Eugène of the fate that awaits him if his quest for higher social status should fail.
Having gobbled up Le Père Goriot, I’m now wondering what next by Balzac I should tackle…This is meant to be one of the best novels in La Comedie Humane series
Le Père Goriot first appeared in 1834 in series form. My copy of this novel is a Penguin Classics edition translated by Marion Ayton Crawford. For a reason not explained in the foreword, the title is translated as Old Goriot, not Father Goriot which seems to eradicate the centrality of Goriot’s role as a father. The point of the novel isn’t that Goriot is old, but that he is a father. Annoyingly I can’t find any explanation for this decision.
Patrick Modiano’s Paris Nocturne doesn’t merely convey atmosphere; it oozes forth in every section, every page, every paragraph. Dreamlike, mysterious, unsettling; this is a book that begins with a puzzle and ends without answers. In between Modiano adds layer upon layer of obscurity.
Paris Nocturne opens with an accident. The unnamed narrator, a young man in his early twenties, is knocked down by a car near the Place des Pyramides. His journey to hospital is in the company of the driver whose name he overhears while waiting for treatment. By the time he comes round she and her male companion have disappeared, leaving an envelope stuffed full of banknotes as the only sign they existed.
Waking in a strange hospital he thinks he’s encountered the woman driver somewhere previously. She looks like a woman who looked after him as a child. But he’s not sure if his memory is genuine or the hallucinatory effect of a dose of ether. He sets out to track her down, driven not simply by a desire to piece together the events of that night but by a feeling she has answers to the many questions he has wrestled with all his life. Questions which often involve the father from whom he became estranged; a father he suspects was up to something distinctively shady. If he can find her, he reasons, every part of his life will somehow all make sense.
His search takes him on a meandering journey through deserted streets, across moonlit squares and into the cafes and bars of Paris. He makes an odd looking figure in his bloodied coat and bandaged foot but his attempts to solve the mystery are hampered less by his injuries than by his confusion about what is real and what he has truly recalled or merely imagined.
At times past and present seem to blend:
The same circumstances, the same faces keep coming back, like the pieces of coloured glass in a kaleidoscope, with the play of mirrors giving the illusion that the combinations are infinitely variable. But in fact, the combinations are rather limited.
That sense of a shrinking life resonates through the novel. This man has been a drifter for much of his life, hanging around cafés, eavesdropping on philosophical discussions led by a shifty guru-like figure, and engaging in unromantic liaisons with girl friends. Now thirty years later, reaching “an age at which, little by little, life begins to close in on itself” he regrets his many lost opportunities.
In the streets at night, I had the impression I was living another life, a more captivating one, or quite simply, that I was dreaming another life.
His explorations into the past don’t bring answers but serve only to further disorientate and dislocate him from the present. Appropriately for a novella of unanswered questions, one of the last lines is: “I think there’s something you’re hiding from me” which is how readers could well feel by the time they get to the end.
It’s a strange novel for sure, rather confusing but with a dreamlike quality that keeps you reading more. And if your attention ever wanders, you could just get out a map of Paris and plot our narrator’s night time meanderings through the quarters of the city. Be warned however; just like the narrator you may end up in more than a few blind alleys.
Paris Nocturne by Patrick Modiano was first published under the title Accident Nocturne in 2003
This new edition translated in English by Phoebe Weston-Evans is published by Yale University Press. My copy came courtesy of the publishers via NetGalley.
Patrick Modiano was named the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. Given the way Paris Nocturne invokes the sense of the city, it’s interesting to see that the speech awarding him the prize, commented on how his work had “endowed the past with entrancing life and his Parisian cityscape with a singular voice. Magnificently, his work instantiates what an earlier Nobel Laureate,Seamus Heaney, called “the poetry of place”.
It is not a good idea at 5am on a Sunday morning to begin browsing the Net Galley catalogue of titles available for review. Of course that only became apparent a few weeks later when the request approvals began coming through and I realised a) how many I had requested b) how much reading I would need to do between now and mid November.
I’m not complaining however. Having the ability to read books by authors I enjoy or to explore writers I’m not familiar with, is part of the pleasure of the Net Galley program. I don’t always get around to reading everything but if I do read the title, then I make sure to write a review. It seems a fair deal to me.
Awaiting me are the following:
The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks: this is one I’m not entirely sue about. I enjoyed her novel Year of Wonders which is about a village in the Peak District in England which seals itself off from the world to prevent the spread of the plague. I know she does extensive research into her chosen periods to ensure her novels sound authentic. It’s really that I don’t know whether the subject matter of The Secret Chord, the life of King David from humble shepherd to despotic king, is to my taste given I have little interest in religious history. But I could be pleasantly surprised and at least I will learn something in the process of reading.
Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan is a wild card choice for me. Kurniawan has been named as a rising star from Indonesia and compared (favourably) to Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez. Her latest novel, set in an unnamed town near the Indian Ocean, tells the story of two interlinked and tormented families, and of Margio, an ordinary half-city, half-rural youngster who also happens to be half-man, half-supernatural female white tiger.
The Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra
I must be one of the few people on the planet yet to read Khadra’s best selling Swallows of Kabul (ok, a bit of an exaggeration I know). I do have it in the bookshelves, just haven’t got around to it yet. The Dictator’s Last Night sounded too good to miss however. It’s focus is a figure whose name has long been associated with authoritarian political leadership and abuse of human rights: the former Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi. Khadra imagines the leader hiding out in his home town in the dying days of the Libyan civilc war. As he awaits a convey to take him and his advisors out of the danger zone, he reflects on his life, his animosity towards the West and the ingratitude of his fellow countrymen.
The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’brien: She may be in her 80s now but Edna O’Brien is giving no sign she’s ready to throw in the writing towel. When her memoir The Country Girl came out a few years ago there was much speculation it would be her last published work. She’s proved everyone wrong with The Little Red Chairs, a story of the consequences of a fatal attraction. A war criminal on the run from the Balkans settles in a small Irish community where he pretends to be a faith healer. The community fall under his spell but he proves to be fatally attractive to one local woman in particular.
Paris Nocturne by Patrick Modiano: How could I possibly resist a noir work from the Nobel Laureate? Especially given that atmospheric cover….
This novel begins with a nighttime accident on the streets of Paris. An unnamed narrator is hit by a car whose driver he vaguely recalls having met before and then experiences a series of mysterious events. They culminate with an envelope stuffed full of bank notes being stuffed into his hand. Libération called this book “perfect” while L’Express described it as “cloaked in darkness, but it is a novel that is turned toward the light.”
And finally I have The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende. It’s fair to say that I have not yet warmed to Allende. But she has a huge following and a friend keeps raving about her so I thought she deserved another chance. As the title suggests this is a romance. In it we see a young Polish girl meet in San Fransisco and fall in love with the Japanese man employed as the family’s gardner. Their relationship is tested when in the aftermath of Pearl Harbour, Japanese residents in the US are rounded up and sent to internment camps. Fast forward to modern day San Francisco and the secrets of a passion lasting seventy years are revealed.
Any of these books appeal to you? or maybe you’ve already read some of them?
It’s been a little quiet in the Classics Club lately so I was delighted to see that another round of the spin challenge has been announced. I’ve not always managed to read the book identified in previous rounds but it’s still a good way of nudging me towards some of the remaining titles on my list.
The rules are as always: list any twenty books you’ve left to read from the Classics Club list. Whichever number turns up when the spin result is announced, thats the title to read before end of October.
Since I’m just over half way towards the goal of 50 books by August 2017, I don’t have too many options left. My selection of 20 is divided into two based on date of publication. ** indicates I’ve read that book once before but its on my list because I don’t think I did it justice first time around.
Pre twentieth century
1. Candide — Voltaire 1759
2. The Black Sheep — Honore Balzac 1842
3. Evelina — Frances Burney 1778
4. Dr Thorne — Anthony Trollope 1858
5. Adam Bede — George Eliot 1859
6.** Can You Forgive Her — Anthony Trollope 1864
7. **Anna Karenina — Leo Tolstoy 1873-77
8. The Way we Live Now — Anthony Trollope 1875
9. ** Daniel Deronda — George Eliot 1876
10. A Parisian Affair and other stories — Maupassant 1880s
11. The Secret Agent — Joseph Conrad 1907
12. Age of Innocence — Edith Wharton 1920
13. All Passion Spent – Vita Sackville West 1932
14. A Room of One’s Own — Woolf 1932
15. **Frost in May — Antonia White 1933
16. The Grapes of Wrath — John Steinbeck 1939
17. The Pursuit Of Love — Nancy Mitford 1945
18. The Charioteer — Mary Renault 1953
19. The Quiet American — Graham Greene 1955
20. Love in the Time of Cholera — Gabriel Garcia Marquez 1985
With The Fortunes of the Rougons, Émile Zola embarked on an ambitious project to write a comprehensive fictional history of the social, sexual and moral landscape of his era. By examining in minute detail the “natural and social history” of two branches of the same family, he intended to demonstrate his theory that character was inescapably determined by the twin forces of heredity and the environment.
In his preface to The Fortunes of the Rougons, Zola commented that the book could just as appropriately have been entitled Origins. It’s a reflection of the fact that as the first of his 20-book Rougon-Macquart cycle, much of this novel is concerned with introducing the members of the respective family branches. The Rougons are the legitimate side, loyal supporters of the Royalist cause who rise to occupy commanding positions in government and finance. On the opposite side of the political fence are the illegitimate disreputable Republican Macquarts. Both branches are descended from the strange and “quite mad”Adelaide Fouques who twice shocked the fictitious Provençal town of Plassans: first when chose as her husband a peasant by the name of Rougon and then, on his death, when she shacked up with an unsavoury poacher called Macquart
The fortunes and misfortunes of these families are set against the background of Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1851 which resulted in the Second Empire under Napoleon III. As the novel begins, Republican opposition to the coup is gathering pace in Provencal. Idealism sweeps through the Var region. The region’s woodcutters and peasants begin to march towards Plassans, intent on seizing control of the town. In their midst are Silvère and Miette, two young lovers who get caught up in the patriotic fervour and join the march, a decision which ends in tragedy.
The novel isn’t really about these ill-fated lovers although it’s their moonlight assignation in a deserted cemetery with which the book opens. What Zola is really focused on is depicting how the imminent crisis exacerbates the tendencies in the Rougon and Macquart family to greed, treachery and murder.
The insurgents’ march provides Pierre Rougon and his wife Félicité, with the perfect opportunity to achieve their ambition of power and influence. They calculate the fortune that will be showered upon them by a grateful Emperor if they can rally the loyalists and hold the town for his cause. They set about ingratiating themselves into the bourgeoisie of Plassans, using their “yellow drawing room” as a meeting place for the conservatives who support Louis-Napoleon. But their manoeuvring is threatened by the activities of Antoine Macquart, the illegitimate son of Adelaide, who sees the Republic as a way “to fill his pockets from his neighbour’s cashbox and even strangle his neighbour if he objected in any way…”
Zola’s portrayal of the clash between these characters, none of whom can be considered remotely sympathetic, is superb. Zola exposes them as manipulative, avaricious individuals whose desire for fortune becomes tainted with blood. In one key passage as Pierre and Félicité lie in bed and she explains her plans for the conquest of Plassans bring together themes of blood, greed and money.
They kissed each other again and fell asleep. The patch of light on the ceiling now seemed to be assuming the shape of a terrified eye, staring unblinkingly at the pale, slumbering couple, who now reeked of crime under their sheets, and were dreaming that they could see blood raining down in big drops and turning into gold coins as they landed on the floor.
As that passage shows, there is nothing very subtle about this novel. Each member of the Rougon family has blood on their hands by the end of the novel, laying the foundations for the family’s future as “a pack of wild, satiated appetites in the midst of a blaze of gold and blood.”
It is a thrilling story. Fast-paced with some glorious set pieces in which Zola satirises and parodies, the extreme provincialism of Plassans, and the lack of principle in its inhabitants. Although the political dimension is central to the plot, it doesn’t require an exhaustive knowledge of the period (my Oxford World Classic edition contained a very useful summary plus family tree) to understand the issues which divide the Rougon-Macquart family and the citizens of Plassans. Zola’s writing, if not as powerful in The Fortune of the Rougons as in the later novels (particularly Germinal and La Bete Humaine), is still completely engrossing.
The Fortune of the Rougons was published in 1871, serialised in the newspaper Le Siècle. Émile Zola went on to publish a further 19 novels in the Rougon-Macquart series under the sub title of Histoire natural et social dune famille sous le Second Empire.
The sympathetic portrait of the insurgents seen in The Fortune of the Rougons stems from Zola’s own opposition to the Empire — he once referred to Louis-Napoleon’s coup as a bloodstain that could never be washed away — although he abhorred violence and did not believe in violent action.
Rain and grey clouds were not quite the welcome home I was hoping for yesterday. After three weeks of blue sky and warmth, it was a shock to the system to arrive in Southampton in drizzle and winds. Tomorrow will be an even greater shock though when I have to go back to work. Goodbye lazy breakfasts and even lazier days reading in the sunshine; hello household chores, emails and teleconferences.
Still, we have some wonderful memories of our week in Zambia, walking through the falls, seeing the sun set over the Zambezi river and taking an old steam train across to Zimbabwe. Pride of place however goes to an exhilarating helicopter ride right over Victoria Falls and then swooping over the rim and down into a gorge to follow the twists of the river. Since I was the smallest passenger I got the premium seat right up front next to the pilot. Simply breathtaking!
After that excitement we got a chance to catch our breath with the two weeks it took us to cruise up the coast of Africa back to the UK. We’d never been on a cruise before but everyone told us the Queen Mary 2 is one of the best afloat. I loved the art deco theme throughout all the public rooms and the formal nights where tuxedos and cocktail gowns were required.
In between listening to classic recitals and lectures I found plenty of time to just laze on the deck, watch the ocean go by and catch up on some reading. I tried to synchronise the books with some of the countries we visited or sailed past:
- Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (South Africa)
- We Need New Names by No Violet Bulawayo (Zimbabwe)
- Fiela’s Child by Dalene Matthee (South Africa)
- The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain (France)
- The Fortune of the Rougons by Emile Zola (France)
- Read all About It by Paul Cudahy (England)
- The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer (England)
I also finished Life of Pi by Yan Martel that I was half way through when we left for our trip and am part way through Mansfield Park (not one of my favourite Austens but I decided to give it another go).
Pretty impressive eh?
The cost of internet access meant I couldn’t post very often – I did manage to do a review of The Old Curiousity Shop and posted a few general pieces:
I’ll get around to posting my reviews eventually and will also do my best to catch up on all the blog sites I follow.