Monday, July 7, 2014

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

 “LA RABOUILLEUSE” by Honore de Balzac (first published in 1841-42; many English translations; Donald Adamson’s Penguin translation, as “THE BLACK SHEEP”, first published 1970)
            On a recent visit to Paris, I spent a morning visiting the house where Honore de Balzac lived for seven years, and enjoyed myself wallowing in Balzacian memorabilia. The novelist wrote only a small part of his immense output in this house, but it was here that he wrote La Cousine Bette and La Rabouilleuse, two of the best novels in his series La Comedie Humaine. So I regard it as a very special place.
La Cousine Bette has always been one of Balzac’s most popular novels and has frequently been dramatized and turned into television series and movies. I particularly enjoyed an excellent BBC TV version of La Cousine Bette many years ago, which had Margaret Tyzack well cast as the vindictive and destructive Bette Fischer. There was also a truly awful American film version in the late 1990s, totally missing both the point and the spirit of the novel.
La Rabouilleuse was, quite a few years ago, filmed a couple of times by the French, but was long regarded as one of Balzac’s lesser efforts. Yet in some ways I regard it as a better, more tightly-written novel than La Cousine Bette. Its reputation has grown in recent years, to the point where it is now widely considered a masterpiece. This is especially so since Donald Adamson’s Penguin translation, under the title The Black Sheep, was published in 1970 and made La Rabouilleuse more widely available to modern English-language readers.
            Written in the early 1840s, during the “bourgeois” July Monarchy of Louis Philippe, it is set twenty years earlier in the early 1820s, during the Restoration period of France’s Bourbon monarchy, although it does have a brief coda that brings the story up to about 1840. And as is true of many of Balzac’s works, its central situation is a tussle over money, but in this case with an infusion of a Cain-and-Abel situation, to wit, the extreme contrast of two very different brothers.
Agathe Bridau, pious widow of a minor Napoleonic official, lives in Paris in reduced circumstances with her two sons. Philippe, the elder, is a scapegrace who served in the army in the last days of Napoleon, won the Legion of Honour, and now lives on the legend of being the faithful Napoleonic soldier whose moral scruples prevent him from serving the restored monarchy. In other words, he gives himself a free pass not to work, and to spend his life drinking, gambling and chasing women. Clearly not a man of principle. By contrast his younger brother Joseph is a scrupulously honest, but struggling, artist, almost totally without guile. The first third of the novel chronicles Philippe’s gradual ruination of the family through his excesses and thefts; yet still he remains the apple of his mother’s eye. Agathe seems incapable of seeing the patient merit that is in Joseph.
One of Philippe’s exploits lands him in jail. Now facing real poverty, Agathe sets out with Joseph to the country town the family originated from, in the hope of gaining some of a disputed family inheritance.  The inheritance is controlled by Agathe’s old uncle Jean-Jacques Roguet, but he is very much under the thumb of the malign sharper Max Gilet and his circle of Bonapartists all of whom, like Philippe, claim the privilege of not having to work under an unsympathetic regime.
This is merely the set-up. I will not summarise the remaining two-thirds of the novel in detail for the simple reason that the story is so well-wrought, and (with the exception of one long digression) the plot is so tightly and cunningly wound, that it would be criminal to divulge too much. Enough to say that Agathe’s and Joseph’s attempts to win back some of the family inheritance stall until Philippe is let out of jail and joins their efforts to secure the hard cash. As in much of Balzac’s writing, there is the spectacle of honest and virtuous characters unable to look after their interests when they can be outwitted by scoundrels. There is also the theme that it often takes a scoundrel to defeat a scoundrel. If this seems straightforward enough, however, I have to add that the novel has a number of unexpected twists; and apparent “success” (in terms of securing the legacy) is followed by reversals.
Like Dickens, Balzac is often criticised and damned by fastidious critics who see his novels as shapeless and rambling and too much like “yarns”. Certainly one part of La Rabouilleuse (the digression I mentioned above) seems like a distraction, even to a devoted Balzacian like me. The second of the novel’s three parts begins with a long dollop of background information (amounting to about 70 pages in my French-language copy and about 80 pages in my Penguin copy) to fill us in on all the small town intrigues that Agathe and Joseph are going to face, and the background to the devious Max Gilet and his Napoleonic friends. This detracts from the story’s momentum somewhat, and also shifts from the more interesting focus on the contrast of Philippe and Joseph. Allowing even for this, however, La Rabouilleuse strikes me as a much more effective variation on the theme of active, scoundrel brother contrasted with passive, honest brother than, say, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae. As pure “yarn” it outclasses anything by Dumas, who didn’t have Balzac’s grasp of social realities anyway.
The political perspective is pitiless. Balzac is not impressed by the Bourbon Restoration (whose political corruption is manifest in the novel), but he rejects equally Bonapartism and it “liberal” adherents, who are equated with self-servers cloaking ambition in ideology. Soldierly troublemakers vex the body politic and stir up futile memories of Napoleonic “glory” as a pretext for their idleness. In one of Balzac’s more sceptical observations, the plot has certain characters suddenly switching their allegiance from the “liberal” to the “legitimist” side when there appears to be money in it. Ironical to think that eight or nine years after Balzac wrote this novel, another Napoleon seized power in France and the cycle of “glory”-hunting began again.
Does Balzac overdo the theme of the helplessness of virtue if it does not have vice to lean upon? Perhaps. Moral but helpless Joseph is in some ways a variation on the hapless Lucien de Rubempre is Balzac’s Lost Illusions, written three years before La Rabouilleuse - that is, the likeable but weak provincial chap destroyed by stronger, unscrupulous types. The only novel by Balzac I can think of in which the virtuous win a worldly struggle, without the help of the vicious, is Ursule Mirouet – and in that (unusually for a Balzac novel) the virtuous characters are assisted by divine intervention. It is almost as if Balzac is saying that for virtue to win, it takes a bloody miracle.
There is a streak of ambiguity in Balzac’s attitude towards Philippe – perhaps like Thackeray showing Becky Sharp to be an untrustworthy, devious minx who nevertheless, by her very activeness, is still a more interesting and engaging character than the quiet, moral and frankly rather boring Amelia Sedley.
I salute La Rabouilleuse as a densely-plotted, well-written, politically-aware novel – certainly one of Balzac’s best.                                                                 

Necessary Footnote: The recent English title The Black Sheep is self-explanatory. It refers to Philippe. The French title La Rabouilleuse needs some explaining. It’s a defunct French dialect word, meaning a woman who stirs up the water when crayfish are being hunted; hence, by extension, someone who “fishes in troubled waters”. In the novel it’s the nickname of a minor character, Flore Brazier, the housekeeper and mistress of the legacy-controlling Jean-Jacques Roguet, who causes much trouble. Why Balzac named the novel after her, when she is not its main focus, is a bit of a mystery to me.

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