Balzac, William Maxwell and Jane Austen

Balzac, Domestic Peace cover

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), Domestic Peace and Other Stories. Penguin, 1958. Translated from the French by Marion Ayton Crawford. Don’t you just love those old Penguin Classics covers?

Most of these early stories were originally published 1830-32. The title story is the best, a nasty tale of aristocratic sexual predation in the pre-Revolutionary world of aristocratic ‘easy manners and moral laxness’. The Revolution and the Terror features in most of the other stories, too, with plots involving summary executions, cruelty, treachery and retribution.

‘Colonel Chabert’ also stands out. A Napoleonic officer reported dead at the battle of Eylau returns to life in Paris during the post-Revolutionary restoration to reclaim his old identity – and wife. She has remarried, and with callous cynicism refuses to acknowledge him. This well crafted story, much redacted and revised by Balzac, was filmed several times.

‘The Abbé Birotteau’ is more of a Trollopeian clerical comedy with a dark edge. Unlike Warden Harding, our Abbé’s innocence is no protection from the harshness of his world, or from the landlady he unwittingly upsets.

Mostly, though, the stories are rather dour and stodgy fare. The world Balzac depicts is dyspeptic.

Maxwell Chateau coverWilliam Maxwell (1908-2000) The Château (1961). Is this a travel book or a novel? At times I felt it was the former, as accounts of life in bomb-scarred France just after the war (1948) became just a little too detailed. A few too many new French acquaintances are introduced.

The young American Rhodes couple, touring Europe for four months, are charmingly flawed: desperate to be liked and accepted, to savour the culture and language of France, with which they’d ‘fallen in love’ – but never quite able to lose their essentially alien Americanness: “you don’t really understand one another,” reflects Harold on how difficult it is to be friends with somebody, “no matter how much you like them.” Is it ever really possible to know another person really well? (the narrator ponders near the end).

In ration-hit, austere postwar France Americans are seen as annoyingly rich.

Maxwell writes polished sentences – sometimes overpolished (why ‘it had commenced to sprinkle’, rather than ‘it had started to rain/drizzle’?) But here are some good aphorisms:

The poppy-infested fields through which they were now passing were by Renoir, and the distant blue hills by Cézanne. That the landscape of France had produced its painters seemed less likely than that the painters were somehow responsible for the landscape.

Hang on, though; is that as good as it seems at first sight? Or is it just superficially clever, ostentatious?

There’s a strange, not entirely congruent postmodern, reflexive element throughout (spectral narratorial questions, answered just as mysteriously), as here at p. 63, on the Rhodes as tourists; why go to Europe, asks this inquisitor, in italics:

it’s too soon after the war. Traveling will be much pleasanter and easier five years from now. The soldiers have not all gone home yet. People are poor and discouraged. Europe isn’t ready for tourists. Couldn’t they wait?

No, they couldn’t…they are unworldly, and inexperienced.

This feature is more pronounced in the ‘Explanations’ section at the end where that intrusive, teasing narrator enters into dialogue with an imagined reader who’s keen to fill the gaps in the narrative, which the narrator coyly sidesteps, or fills in as if completing a questionnaire. Very odd.

There’s a nasty racist exchange with an unreconstructed Frenchman about white America’s treatment of its African-Americans, topped with spectacular casualness by Barbara Rhodes (pp. 201-02).

So Long, See You Tomorrow is a much more successful Maxwell novel (1979-80).

Austen N Abbey cover

I dipped in to my old OWC edition from time to time to check the details

Jane Austen (1775-1817), Northanger AbbeyAfter eye surgery I wasn’t able to read much, so I listened to this as a LibriVox audio book. I hadn’t read it in years. It’s as delightful as I remembered.

There’s the usual Austen wit (and terrific, character-revealing dialogue) and crystalline perception. Yet this was first written probably as early as 1798-99; it wasn’t published until 1818 (along with Persuasion), after Jane Austen’s death.

Here’s Catherine Morland growing up into adolescence and womanhood after a rollicking tomboy childhood: her eyes ‘gained more animation, and her figure more consequence’:

To look almost pretty, is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life, than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.

Now that is how to do aphoristic prose while establishing character and narrative poise. The author also directly or indirectly refers, in metafictional touches that make Maxwell’s look rather awkward and mannered, to her task of presenting her heroine in a novel of sensibility, with the constraints of contemporary novelistic convention subtly subverted. Thus when the boorish Mr Thorpe claims never to read novels (Catherine had just asked him if he’d read her favourite, the hugely popular but ‘horrid’ Gothic Mystery of Udolpho), sniffing that they’re ‘so full of nonsense and stuff’, the reader is alerted to his duplicity (he’s too stupid to read anything), pomposity, shallow nature and lack of empathy with our enthusiastic ingénue heroine. Her innocence and unworldliness is quietly conveyed in such passages, along with her charm and lack of coquetry – she’s far more suitable heroine material, our narrator shows, than the superficially more glamorous but essentially monstrous Isabella (more on her coming up).

The first half of the novel gives a deceptively muted satirical critique of the society that gathers at the fashionable spa town of Bath (including the gloriously flirtatious, devious and selfishly catty ‘friend’ Isabella, who Catherine has to learn loves only herself despite her protestations of affection for her new bff – as I believe young people say).

Girls like Catherine, attending her first ball, are desperate to be danced and flirted with, vulnerable to odious frauds like Isabella, but clearly destined to find happiness with the upstanding chap she dotes on.

The Gothic satire section at his medieval abbey was less interesting than I recalled, and rather laboured.

Reading Jane Austen is an experience that’s perfect for a convalescent. Pity the range of readers on my free LibriVox version was so uneven.

 

Honesty is another word for foolishness: Pérez Galdós, Miau

 

After a not entirely satisfactory encounter with 19C Spanish fiction as represented by La Regenta (I wrote about it here and here) I turned with some trepidation to an old Penguin Classics edition of Benito Pérez Galdós’s 1888 novel Miau. The experience was mixed once again.

miau-coverIt’s a sobering, depressing plot: Don Ramón Villaamil has become a ‘cesante’ – a functionary in the immense bureaucracy of the Finance Ministry of the Spanish Restoration period who has lost his post with the fall of the political administration which appointed him. After nearly 35 years of service he’s been made redundant, just two months short of the pension which would have sufficed to provide for himself and his family.

And what a family. His waspish wife, the ironically named Doña Pura, is a spendthrift, whose mania for showing off her fading finery in the Madrid opera houses eclipses any inclination to be a housewife. Her sister Milagros (ironic name!) abets her in her tyrannical control of this household. Their unattractive daughter Abelarda (another aptly ironical name) is too timid and retiring to exert any control over anyone or anything.

Only Villaamil’s grandson, ten-year-old Luís, brings him any consolation. But the little boy is a chip of this old block. The grandfather is described early on as ‘an old consumptive tiger’, now with none of its former beauty ‘except its bright skin’ – he’s still capable of grumpy growling and self-pitying sulking, but he’s toothless.

The rest of the novel relates his increasingly humiliating attempts to beg money from former colleagues by writing letters to them, or by going the rounds of his former Treasury offices, seeking to gain favour and a new position by flattering, importuning or just being seen by his former subordinates and superiors – most of whom despise and patronize him. Those who don’t, find him a pitiable, abject figure.

It’s no spoiler to say this all ends badly for him. Too passive and introspective to play the aggressive role needed to persuade the new administration to employ him, he retreats ever further into himself, slowly turning from reluctant but persistent in his efforts to re-establish himself in the bureaucracy, to obsessive and manic – in the end conceding that he has become what these corrupt, self-serving pen-pushers see him as: a figure of fun, a deluded madman.

The narrative is often painfully slow moving, and the scenes in which this plot are enacted are often far too long and drawn-out. Spoken exchanges and Interior monologues tend to ramble on for pages.

This weakness is balanced by some genuine strengths – the qualities which have brought Galdós to be compared to Balzac and Dickens. I’d suggest he foreshadows Kafka in his bleak depiction of a gargantuan, labyrinthine bureaucracy whose main desire is to perpetuate its own lethargy and corruption, and which crushes anyone who fails to serve it in the manner it needs.

I’ll show some extracts, then, maybe more in another post, which represent him at his most compelling – but these moments are not frequent, there are many more longueurs.

In Ch. 3 Pura castigates her husband for not emulating his former subordinates, who by behaving like ‘scoundrels’ have gained promotions in the Ministry, while he has been ignominiously dropped.

She seizes upon the example of Cucúrbitas, a blundering incompetent:

He may be stupid, but he knows better than you how to push himself.

She despises the man, but admires his immorality: he takes bribes for settling accounts of the state’s clients. When the husband tries to quiet her, Pura continues, getting into her melodramatic stride:

‘How innocent you are! That’s why you are where you are, that’s why you’re poor and they pass you over. Because you haven’t a grain of foresight, and because you’ve been so careful about your blessed scruples. That isn’t honesty, let me tell you, it’s just obtuseness and stupidity.

She bitterly compares ‘honourable’ but unemployed Villaamil with this ‘dunderhead’ Cucúrbitas, concluding with the taunt that this fool will end up a director or minister – ‘And you’ll never be anything.’

She’s ‘warming to it’, our wry narrator informs us in a parenthesis like a stage direction (these dialogues are often punctuated like this, with long sequences of speeches given verbatim; Galdós was also a playwright, though more successful as a novelist). Why doesn’t Villaamil blackmail this administration by ‘coughing up’ scandal he knows about them and their ‘dirty work’, she says. She’d do it, and not care who got hurt. ‘Unmask all those scamps’, she exhorts, then he’d be found a post. But she knows he won’t, and castigates him for it.

Then she returns to more scornful abuse: he’s too full of ‘finicking and politeness’, politely deferring to these people. She moves in for the kill:

‘They just reckon you’re a nobody. But’ (raising her voice) ‘as sure as this light shines you ought to be a director by now. And why aren’t you? Because you’ve got no drive and no spirit, because you don’t count for anything, because you don’t know the way to go about things. Sighing and complaining won’t make them give you what you want.’

This tirade is relentless, her wrath like that of the ferocious sisters in King Lear, or Lady Macbeth’s when she tears into her husband when he shows reluctance to take decisive (ie murderous) action to fulfill their ambitions. Her final insults are vicious:

‘You’re harmless, you don’t bite, you don’t even bark, and they all laugh at you…It’s this honesty of yours that’s your undoing. Honesty is sometimes taken as just another word for foolishness….A man can preserve all the integrity in the world and still take care of himself and his family.’

Pura is blithely unaware of the illogical movement of her argument here, and it’s this showing of her pernicious nature that’s so effectively done: the narrator doesn’t have to explain or moralise – the author trusts us to see her as she truly is. Her hypocrisy and amorality are matched only by those of the bureaucrats she expects her husband to emulate – and yet she despises him for his refusal – or inability – to stoop to their kind of self-promotion.

There’s a grim humour in her preposterous, blistering assault on the submissive, ineffective ‘cesante’. He lacks the assertiveness and spirit that she is full of – he’s a worm that can’t turn.

That early description of the ‘old consumptive tiger’ is invoked in Pura’s diatribe. The message is clear: to get on in this corrupt world a man has to be ruthless. She fails to realise that she’s urging him to become the kind of bully who terrorises their little grandson in the opening chapter and elsewhere. Like Luís, Villaamil is too introspective and passive to fight back or stand up for himself against those who wrong him – yet he spends his time complaining about his fate.

This ambiguous dilemma and the way it’s dramatised in the novel are what redeems it somewhat from the tedious narrative sprawl. The modern world is complicated, and to swim with the sharks it’s necessary to become sharklike. Yet Villaamil isn’t portrayed as some Dostoevskian saintly innocent or idiot: he really is too passive for his own or his family’s good. There’s no redemption for the likes of him, and his loathsome, unfeeling son-in-law is his mirror image, a man who knows how to succeed, and has the morality of a snake. His name is, again, highly appropriate. He’s called Victor.