Thursday, April 2, 2020

Erich Auerbach on the Realism of Zola's Germinal

This is an excerpt from Chapter 19 of Erich Auerbach's Mimesis: Representation of Reality in Western Literature, where he discusses the development of Realism in the context of Germinal, probably the most famous and highly regarded of all of Zola's novels. (Auerbach quotes the original text in French as well, I have omitted it here)


Emile Zola is twenty years younger than the generation of Flaubert and the Goncourts. There are connections between him and them; he is influenced by them; he stands on their shoulders; he has a great deal in common with them. He too would seem not to have been free from neurasthenia, but through his family background he is poorer in money, tradition, fastidiousness of sentiment. He stands out boldly from among the group of the aesthetic realists. We will again cite a text, to bring out this point as clearly as possible. We have chosen a passage from Germinal (1888), the novel which describes life in a coal-mining region of Northern France. It is the end of the second chapter of part 3. It is kermess time, a Sunday night in July. The workmen of the place have spent the afternoon going from one bar to another, drinking, bowling, looking at all sorts of shows. The day ends climactically with a ball, the bal du Bon-Joyeux, at the estaminet of the fat, fiftyish, but still lusty widow Désir. The ball has been going on for several hours; even the older women are coming to it now, bringing their small children.

(It was ten o’clock before anyone left. Women kept arriving, to find and take away their men; bands of children followed at their heels; and the mothers no longer troubled about appearances, took out long blond breasts like bags of oats, smeared their fat-cheeked babies with milk; while the children who could already walk, gorged with beer and on all fours under the tables, relieved themselves without shame. It was a rising sea of beer, Widow Désir’s casks broached, beer swelling out bellies, flowing from all sides, from noses, from eyes, and from elsewhere. People swelled up so, in the press, that everyone had a shoulder or a knee digging into his neighbor, all were made cheerful, at ease, by feeling one another’s elbows in this way. A continuous laugh kept mouths open, gaping to the ears. It was as hot as an oven, everyone was roasting, all made themselves comfortable, their flesh exposed, gilded in the thick smoke of the pipes; and the only difficulty was to move, a girl got up from time to time, went to the back, near the pump, tucked up her skirts, then returned. Under the garlands of colored paper the dancers no longer saw each other, they were sweating so—which encouraged the pit-boys to knock over the haulage-girls by promiscuous thrusts of their haunches. But when a strapping girl fell with a man on top of her, the cornet covered their fall with its furious sounds, the swing of feet rolled them, as if the dance had collapsed on them.
Someone passing by told Pierron that his daughter Lydie was sleeping at the door, across the sidewalk. She had swallowed her share of the stolen bottle, she was drunk, and he had to carry her in his arms, while Jeanlin and Bébert, more resistant, followed him at a distance, finding it very funny. This was the signal for departure, the families left the Bon-Joyeux, the Maheus and the Levaques decided to return to the mining village. At that moment, Père Bonnemort and old Mouque also left Montsou, both with the same sleep-walking gait, stubbornly maintaining the silence of their memories. And they all went home together, for the last time they passed through the carnival, the solidifying pans of fried stuff, the bars from which the last mugs were pouring in streams, even to the middle of the road. There was still a storm threatening, laughter rose as soon as they had left the lighted houses to lose themselves in the dark countryside. A hot breath poured from the ripe wheat, many children must have been conceived that night. When they reached the village, they felt let down. Neither the Levaques nor the Maheus supped with appetite, and the latter fell asleep finishing their morning boiled beef.
Etienne had taken Chaval to drink some more at Rasseneur’s.
“I’m on!” said Chaval, when his comrade had explained the matter of the reserve fund to him. “Shake! You’re all right!”
A touch of drunkenness made Etienne’s eyes flame. He cried, “Yes, let’s be together… As for me, I tell you, for justice I would give everything, drink and women. There’s only one thing that warms my heart, it’s the idea that we are going to get rid of the bosses.”)

The passage is one of those which, when Zola’s work first appeared during the last thirty years of the past century, aroused disgust and horror, but also, on the part of a not inconsiderable minority, great admiration. Many of his novels attained high sales figures immediately upon publication, and a strong movement set in for and against the justification of this kind of art. A reader who, knowing nothing of all this, should read nothing of Zola’s except the first paragraph of the passage cited above, could believe for a moment that he had before him a literary form of the coarse realism which is so well known from the Flemish and especially the Dutch painting of the seventeenth century. He might take it as nothing but a lower-class orgy of dancing and drinking, of the kind to be found or imagined in Rubens or Jordaens, in Brouwer or Ostade. To be sure, these are not peasants drinking and dancing but factory workers; and there is also a difference in the effect produced, in that the especially brutal details impress us, for the length of time it takes to utter them or read them, as more disagreeable and painful than they would as elements in a painting. But these are not basic differences. We might add that Zola apparently attributed great importance to the purely sensory aspects of his “literary portrait” of a mob orgy, that in this paragraph his genius reveals a decidedly pictorial vein, for example in his details of flesh painting (… les mères … sortaient des mamelles longues et blondes comme des sacs d’avoine …; and later… la chair dehors, dorée dans l’épaisse fumée des pipes). The flowing beer, the haze of sweat, the grinning and wide-open mouths likewise become visual impressions; acoustic and other sensory effects are also produced. In short, for a moment we might be tempted to think that what is set before us is nothing but an unusually robust action on the lowest level of style, sheer rowdyism. Especially the last part of the paragraph, the furious blowing of cornets and the ferocious dancing which muffles and swallows up the fall of one couple, supplies the orgiastic note which such farcical creations require.

But all that alone would not have caused so much excitement among Zola’s contemporaries. Among his enemies, who worked themselves into a fury over what they called the repulsiveness, the filth, and the obscenity of his art, there were doubtless many who accepted the grotesque or comic realism of earlier epochs, even in its crudest or most indecent representations, with equanimity and even with delight. What excited them so was rather the fact that Zola by no means put forth his art as “of the low style,” still less as comic. Almost every line he wrote showed that all this was meant in the highest degree seriously and morally; that the sum total of it was not a pastime or an artistic parlor game but the true portrait of contemporary society as he—Zola—saw it and as the public was being urged in his works to see it too.

This could hardly be surmised from the first paragraph of our text taken by itself. The one aspect of it which could give us pause is the matter-of-factness of the presentation. It is almost like a procès-verbal; despite the sensory immediacy it achieves, there is a certain dryness, excessive clarity, almost inhumanity in it. This is not the style of a writer who aims at nothing but comic or grotesque effects. The first sentence—Jusqu’à dix heures, on resta—would be inconceivable in a grotesque mob orgy. Why are we told of the end of the orgy at the start? For a purely amusing or grotesque purpose, that would be much too sobering. And why such an early hour? What sort of an orgy is it which reaches its end so early? The coal-miners have to be out of bed early on Monday morning, some of them at four o’clock. … And once we have paused, there are many other things that strike us. An orgy, even among the lowest classes, calls for plenty. And plenty there is, but it is poor and frugal—nothing but beer. The whole thing shows how desolate and miserable the joys of these people are.

The real purport of the passage grows clearer in the second paragraph, which describes the various participants’ departure and home-going. The daughter of the miner Pierron, Lydie, is found in the street outside the estaminet, asleep and very drunk. Lydie is a girl of twelve who has spent the evening running around with two neighborhood boys of the same age, Jeanlin and Bébert. The three of them already work as haulers in the mine. They are prematurely depraved children, especially the wily and vicious Jeanlin. This time he has talked the other two into stealing a bottle of gin from one of the kermess stalls. They have emptied it together, but the girl’s share proved too much for her. Now she is being carried home by her father. The two boys follow at a distance, trouvant cela très farce. … Meanwhile the Maheu and Levaque families, who are neighbors, are getting ready to leave. They are joined by two old, worn-out pitmen, Bonnemort and Mouque, who have spent the day together as they usually do. They are hardly sixty years old but they are already the last of their generation—used up and apathetic and no longer employable in the mine except with the horses. During their free hours they stay together constantly, almost without talking. Now once again they drag themselves through the ebbing bustle of the kermess in the direction of the village where they all live. As soon as they get beyond the rows of lighted houses to where the open countryside begins, laughter rises, a hot vapor flows from the darkness of the ripe fields: many children are being begotten that night. Finally they arrive at their hut where, already half asleep, they eat the left-overs of their noonday meal.

Meanwhile two younger men have gone to another tavern. In general they are not on very good terms, because of a girl; but today they have something important to discuss. Etienne wants to win over Chaval for his plan of a workmen’s fund, so that their crew will not be without means when a strike is called. Chaval goes in on it. Warmed by their revolutionary hopes and some liquor, they forget their enmity (not for long, to be sure) and unite in their common hatred of the bourgeois.
Crude and miserable pleasures; early depravity and rapid wearing out of human material; a dissolute sex life, and a birth-rate too high for such living conditions, since intercourse is the only amusement that costs nothing; behind all this, at least among the most energetic and intelligent, revolutionary hatred on the verge of breaking out—these are the motifs of our text. They are unreservedly translated into sensory terms, with no hesitation before the most unambiguous words and the ugliest scenes. The art of style has wholly renounced producing pleasing effects in the conventional sense of the term. Instead it serves unpleasant, depressing, desolate truth. But this truth is at the same time a summons to action in terms of a social reform. It is no longer, as it still was with the Goncourts, a matter of the sensory fascination of ugliness; what we have here is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the core of the social problem of the age, the struggle between industrial capital and labor. The principle of l’art pour l’art has outlived its usefulness. It may be pointed out that Zola too felt and exploited the sensory power of suggestion of the ugly and the repulsive; it may even be held against him that his somewhat coarse-grained and powerful imagination led him to exaggerations, violent simplifications, and a far too materialistic psychology. But all that is not of decisive significance. Zola took the mixing of styles really seriously; he pushed on beyond the purely aesthetic realism of the preceding generation; he is one of the very few authors of the century who created their work out of the great problems of the age. In this respect only Balzac can be compared with him; but Balzac wrote at a time when much of what Zola saw had not yet developed or was not yet discernible. If Zola exaggerated, he did so in the direction which mattered; and if he had a predilection for the ugly, he used it most fruitfully. Even today, after half a century the last decades of which have brought us experiences such as Zola never dreamed of, Germinal is still a terrifying book. And even today it has lost none of its significance and indeed none of its timeliness. There are passages in it which deserve to become classic, which ought to be in anthologies, because they depict, with exemplary clarity and simplicity, the situation and the awakening of the fourth estate in an earlier phase of the same era of change in which we now find ourselves. I am thinking for example of the evening conversation at the miner Maheu’s, in the third chapter of part 3. The theme is first the crowded living conditions in the small houses of the village, their deleterious effects upon health and morals; and then the passage continues as follows:

(“Sure!” Maheu would answer, “if we had more money, we’d have things easier … Just the same, it’s perfectly true that living on top of each other is no good for anybody. That always ends with the men drunk and the girls knocked up.”
And the family would start from there, each saying his word, while the kerosene of the lamp fouled the air, already reeking with fried onion. No, indeed, life was not amusing. You toiled like beasts at work which was the punishment of criminals in earlier days, you lost your hide at it more often than your turn came, and all that and not even have meat on your table at night. Of course you had your rations after all, but so little, just enough to keep you suffering without dying, crushed under debts, persecuted as if you stole your bread. When Sunday came you slept from exhaustion. The only pleasures were to get drunk or make your wife a child; and even at that, beer gave you too big a belly, and the child, later on, said to hell with you. No, no, there was nothing amusing about it.
Then his wife would put in her word.
“The bad thing, I say, is when you tell yourself that it can’t change… When you’re young, you imagine that happiness will come, you hope for things; and then, it’s always trouble beginning over again, you get caught in it… As for me, I don’t wish anyone any harm, but there are times when this injustice sickens me.”
There would be a silence, all would breathe heavily for a moment, in the vague uneasiness of that closed horizon. Only old Bonnemort, if he were present, would open surprised eyes, for in his day people didn’t get into a fuss like this: you were born in coal, you hammered away at the vein, without asking for anything more; whereas today, there was a wind blowing which made coal-miners ambitious.
“Never belittle anything,” he would murmur. “A good mug is a good mug… The bosses are often lice; but there’ll always be bosses, won’t there? No use breaking your brains thinking about it.”
At once Etienne would become animated. What! the workman forbidden to think! Why, it was just because the workman was thinking these days, that things would soon change …)

This is not meant to be a specific conversation, but only an example, one of the many conversations which arise night after night at the Maheu’s under the influence of their tenant Etienne Lantier. Hence too the imperfect tense. The slow transition from torpid resignation to conscious awareness of one’s own situation, the budding of hopes and plans, the various attitudes of different generations; then too the somber poverty and the reeking atmosphere of the room, the densely packed bodies, the simple appositeness of the speeches: all this together gives a typical picture of labor during the early socialist epoch, and surely no one today will seriously attempt to deny that the subject has world-historical importance. What level of style should be ascribed to such a text? There is here, beyond all doubt, great historical tragedy, a mixture of humile and sublime in which, because of the content, the latter prevails. Statements like Maheu’s (si l’on avait plus d’argent on aurait plus d’aise—or, Ça finit toujours par des hommes soûls et par des filles pleines), not to mention his wife’s, have come to be part of the great style. A far cry from Boileau, who could imagine the people only as grimacing grotesquely in the lowest farce. Zola knows how these people thought and talked. He also knows every detail of the technical side of mining; he knows the psychology of the various classes of workers and of the administration, the functioning of the central management, the competition between the capitalist groups, the cooperation of the interests of capital with the government, the army. But he did not confine himself to writing novels about industrial workers. His purpose was to comprise—as Balzac had done, but much more methodically and painstakingly—the whole life of the period (the Second Empire): the people of Paris, the rural population, the theater, the department stores, the stock exchange, and very much more besides. He made himself an expert in all fields; everywhere he penetrated into social structure and technology. An unimaginable amount of intelligence and labor went into the Rougon-Macquart. Today we are surfeited with such impressions; Zola has had many successors, and scenes similar to that at Maheu’s could be found in any piece of modern reporting. But Zola was the first, and his work is full of pictures of a similar kind and a similar value. Did anyone before him see a tenement house as he did in the second chapter of l’Assommoir? Hardly! And the picture he gives of it is not even seen from his point of view; it is the impression received by a young washerwomen who has recently come to Paris to live and who is waiting at the entrance. These pages too I should call classic. The errors in Zola’s anthropological conception and the limits of his genius are patent; but they do not impair his artistic, ethical, and especially his historical importance, and I am inclined to think that his stature will increase as we attain distance from his age and its problems—the more so because he was the last of the great French realists. Even during the last decade of his life the “anti-naturalist” reaction was becoming very strong; and besides, there was no one left to vie with him in working capacity, in mastery of the life of the time, in determination and courage.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Some comments on Zola's Pessimism after reading The Masterpiece

Here is an excerpt from Zola's The Masterpiece. This is from the very last pages of the novel and it in a way serves as a conclusive summary of the problems and overall worldview evoked in the novel. These lines are spoken by Sandoz, Zola's alter-ego in the novel. (Sandoz gets all the best lines in the novel though Claude is the main hero and we get to know his thoughts only through a mode of free indirect discourse.)

It was inevitable. All our activity, our boastfulness about our knowledge was bound to lead us back again to doubt. The present century has cast so much light on so many things, but it was bound to end under the threat of another wave of darkness. … And that is the root of our troubles. We have been promised too much and led to expect too much, including the conquest and the explanation of everything; and now we’ve grown impatient. We’re surprised things don’t move more quickly. We’re resentful because, in a matter of a hundred years, science hasn’t given us absolute certitude and perfect happiness. Why then continue, we ask, since we shall never know everything and our bread will always be bitter? The century has been a failure. Hearts are tortured with pessimism and brains clouded with mysticism for, try as we may to put imagination to flight with the cold light of science, we have the supernatural once more in arms against us and the whole world of legend in revolt, bent on enslaving us again in our moment of fatigue and uncertainty. … I’m no more sure of things than anyone else; my mind, too, is divided. But I do think that this last shattering upheaval of our old religious fears was only to be expected. We are not an end; we are a transition, the beginning only of something new. … And it’s that sets my mind at rest, and somehow encourages me: to know we are moving towards rationality and the firm foundations that only science can give.
Zola is often criticized for being a pessimist, not an ordinary pessimist but a more dogmatic and recalcitrant pessimist, even going so far as to deliberately structure his novels in order to prove this pessimistic thesis, the idea that men are not some "metaphysical marionettes" gifted with a divine or mystical free will but "physiological men" who are subject to laws of nature (pre-eminently, heredity) and the vicissitudes of their environment. (This is also something that Marxist critics like Georg Lukacs dislike in Zola, because it questions the innate humanism of Marxist philosophy)

Just to give a perspective to this debate about pessimism, here is an excerpt from an essay by Henry James, where he advises young novelists to avoid the dogma of either pessimism or optimism and instead be true to Life (available here, emphasis mine)
This freedom is a splendid privilege, and the first lesson of the young novelist is to learn to be worthy of it. “Enjoy it as it deserves,” I should say to him; “take possession of it, explore it to its utmost extent, publish it, rejoice in it. All life belongs to you, and do not listen either to those who would shut you up into corners of it and tell you that it is only here and there that art inhabits, or to those who would persuade you that this heavenly messenger wings her way outside of life altogether, breathing a superfine air, and turning away her head from the truth of things. There is no impression of life, no manner of seeing it and feeling it, to which the plan of the novelist may not offer a place; you have only to remember that talents so dissimilar as those of Alexandre Dumas and Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert have worked in this field with equal glory. Do not think too much about optimism and pessimism; try and catch the colour of life itself. In France to-day we see a prodigious effort (that of Emile Zola, to whose solid and serious work no explorer of the capacity of the novel can allude without respect), we see an extraordinary effort vitiated by a spirit of pessimism on a narrow basis. M. Zola is magnificent, but he strikes an English reader as ignorant; he has an air of working in the dark; if he had as much light as energy, his results would be of the highest value. As for the aberrations of a shallow optimism, the ground (of English fiction especially) is strewn with their brittle particles as with broken glass. If you must indulge in conclusions, let them have the taste of a wide knowledge. Remember that your first duty is to be as complete as possible—to make as perfect a work. Be generous and delicate and pursue the prize. 
But like in the excerpt from The Masterpiece posted above, Zola's pessimism is not as simple and straightforward as it seems. Zola is relentless in his focus on decadence and degeneration but his intellect rebels against it. Zola's was a case of pessimism of the will and the optimism of the intellect. Zola was writing his Rougon-Macquant novels when these theories were in the air in France, so to speak. For example, see Max Nordau's Degeneration, published contemporaneously with Zola's novels, a book which had a dark afterlife in the Nazi Germany where degenerate art took on a different meaning. (Ironically, Nordau, a Jewish physician himself, thought of growing anti-semitism itself as a mark of decadence and degeneracy, for example in the context of Wagner).

Many of Zola's own disciples, most famously Maupassant and Huysmans, and later other leading lights of the literary decadent movement in France, not as well-known outside France, abandoned Zola's "optimism of the intelllect" and gave in whole-heartedly to the pessimism of the will and even eventually to nihilism. Schopenhauer was one of the leading intellectual figures for these writers, and his theories became very popular, specially as the general cultural mood in France soured after the catastrophic defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. The debacle seemed to prove to these writers that French race was indeed weak and degenerate, and deserved the punishment it got in the war. Zola tackles these themes in the context of the war in his novel La Débâcle, where one of his heroes Maurice is said to have learned these pessimistic theories in the intellectual circles of Paris, and is seen to be obsessed with the idea of Life itself as a form of War (in the Darwinian sense), a war in which weak and degenerate are routed and which then paves way for a much healthier society and race. This view also had dark aftereffects later in the context of first world war, where many French intellectuals (even including giants like Bergson) turned warmongers and justified war in these pseudo-mystical terms based on the philosophy of vitalism. I had touched upon some of these themes in my earlier blog on La Débâcle.

In The Masterpiece, Zola tackles the problem of artistic decadence head-on. Like in the excerpt quoted at the top, Zola seems to suggest that the upsurge of decadence was itself a form of reaction, a reaction of romanticism and mysticism against the onward march of science, reason and progress. This romanticism not only affect one's view of world but the very idea of an artist. This reaction and in turn Claude, the artist figure, is a transitional figure, an inherited weak character, whose tragic spiritual weakness, leads him to succumb to this reaction and eventually leads to his tragic downfall.

Ironically, Zola himself is often grouped together with the decadent writers or at least is accused of paving the way for literary decadence (often by Marxist critics like Lukacs). A careful reading of The Masterpiece will serve to dispel these criticisms as it shows Zola was more interested in portrayal of decadence instead of its justification, a form of cultural "diagnosis" so to say. Like all great artists he gives all different sides of the "debate" an equal say in the novel, sometimes like Milton with Satan and Dostoevsky with Ivan Karamazov, he may even paint the other side in stronger terms so that the eventual "message" or the conclusion of work can get skewed against what he originally intended. So in The Masterpiece Claude ultimately turns out to be a tragic-heroic character, a sort of last gasp of the romantic ideal of art and artist.

I feel The Masterpiece is a very important work in Zola's oeuvre, even though in purely stylistic terms it is nowhere near his masterpieces like L'Assmmoir or Germinal, because it serves as self-reflexive statement of purpose or intent on behalf of Zola and it shows that his artistry was much more complex than what many of his own manifestos and pamphlets about "naturalism" or "experimental novel" seem to suggest. I have seen many readers are put off by some of the comments in those pamphlets which often reek of most basic and even a vulgar form of scientism, materialism and determinism, and they never to actually read his works and even when they do, they do it with that bias already gleaned from reading those manifestos. One should instead read this novel to get a good hold of Zola's artistic ambition and what he thought of the place of art in society and what its relationship with life and the real world was, and how that relationship was changing with the advent of science.

P.S. Zola's most sustained engagement with Schopenhauerian ideas and its critique is in his novel La Joie de Vivre (a recent English translation is titled The Bright Side of Life). It is not very well known and doesn't seem to be very widely read in English but it is one of my personal favourites of his novels. It is one of the most powerful evocations of the struggle between the two forces of optimism and pessimism about the nature of life that takes place in one's soul that I have ever read.

वेब परिणाम

all the dreadful, appalling morass of trifles that mires our lives

A short excerpt from Gogol's Dead Souls, to celebrate his birthday today. In the second paragraph one also gets a sense of the true nature of his literary project (This is from the beginning of the chapter 7 of the novel, translated by Robert Maguire)

Happy the wayfarer who, after a long and tedious journey, with its cold spells, slush, mud, groggy stationmasters, clanging bells, repairs, wrangles, coachmen, blacksmiths and scoundrels of every stripe encountered along the road, spies at length the familiar roof and the lights as they rush to meet him, and before him will appear the familiar rooms, the joyous cries of the servants as they run forth to greet him, the noise and scamper of the children and the soft, soothing talk broken by ardent kisses that have the power to blot from memory all that is sad. Happy the family man who has such a nook, but woe to the bachelor! 
Happy the writer who, after ignoring characters that are boring, repulsive, astounding in their sad actuality, gravitates towards characters that manifest the high dignity of man, who, out of the great maelstrom of images that whirl about him daily, has chosen only the few exceptions, who not once has altered the elevated pitch of his lyre, has not descended from his height to the level of his poor, insignificant brethren, and, without touching the earth, has given himself, all of him, over to his own images, which are exalted and removed far from it. Twice enviable is his splendid lot: he stands among them as if in his own family, and meanwhile, his fame spreads wide and clamorous. He has beclouded people’s eyes with intoxicating incense, he has flattered them wondrously, concealing what is sad in life, showing them man in all his splendour. All clap their hands and hasten after him, and rush to follow his triumphal chariot. A great universal poet they dub him, one who soars high above all the other geniuses of the world as an eagle soars above other high-flying birds. At the mere mention of his name, ardent young hearts are seized with trembling, responsive tears glisten in every eye. For strength he has no equal – he is a god! But such is not the lot, and different is the fate of the writer who has made bold to summon forth everything that at every moment lies before the eyes and is not perceived by indifferent eyes, all the dreadful, appalling morass of trifles that mires our lives, all that lies deep inside the cold, fragmented, quotidian characters with which our earthly, at times bitter and tedious, path swarms, and who with the robust strength of an implacable chisel has made bold to set them forth in full and bright relief for all the people to see! It is not for him to reap the plaudits of all the people, not for him to behold the grateful tears and unanimous enthusiasm of the souls that have been stirred by him; it is not to him that a sixteen-year-old girl will fly, head awhirl and hero-worshipful; not for him to lose himself in the sweet enchantment of sounds plucked forth by him alone; not, in fine, for him to escape the judgement of the time, the false, unfeeling judgement of the time, which will brand as worthless and base the creations cherished by him, will assign him an ignoble corner in the ranks of those writers who offend humanity, will attach to him the qualities of the heroes depicted by none but himself, will take from him his heart and soul and the divine flame of talent. For the judgement of the time does not acknowledge that equally wondrous are the lenses that survey suns and those that convey the movements of imperceptible insects; for the judgement of the time does not acknowledge that much spiritual depth is needed to illumine a picture drawn from ignoble life and elevate it into a pearl of creation; for the judgement of the time does not acknowledge that lofty enraptured laughter is worthy of taking its place beside the lofty lyrical impulse and that a whole abyss lies between it and the posturings of a clown in a fair-booth! This the judgement of the time does not acknowledge, and will turn it all to the reproach and ridicule of the unacknowledged writer; without due portion, without response, without sympathy, like a homeless wayfarer, he will remain alone in mid-road. Harsh is his chosen course, and bitterly will he feel his solitude.
And for a long time yet to come I am destined by a wondrous power to walk hand in hand with my strange heroes, to survey the whole of life in all the vastness of its onward rush, to survey it through laughter visible to the world and tears invisible and unknown to it! And distant as yet is that time when through a different font the awesome blizzard of inspiration will gush from a head invested in sacred horror and effulgence, and people will harken, in confused trepidation, to the majestic thunder of other speeches… 

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

"look of being committed to nothing in particular" - a facial description from Henry James's The American

A description of a face from The American by Henry James.

This is from the revised New York Edition published in 1908
His complexion was brown and the arch of his nose bold and well-marked. His eye was of a clear, cold grey, and save for the abundant droop of his moustache he spoke, as to cheek and chin, of the joy of the matutinal steel. He had the flat jaw and the firm, dry neck which are frequent in the American type; but the betrayal of native conditions is a matter of expression even more than of feature, and it was in this respect that our traveller's countenance was supremely eloquent. The observer we have been supposing might, however, perfectly have measured its expressiveness and yet have been at a loss for names and terms to fit it. It had that paucity of detail which is yet not emptiness, that blankness which is not simplicity, that look of being committed to nothing in particular, of standing in a posture of general hospitality to the chances of life, of being very much at one's own disposal, characteristic of American faces of the clear strain. It was the eye, in this case, that chiefly told the story; an eye in which the unacquainted and the expert were singularly blended. It was full of contradictory suggestions; and though it was by no means the glowing orb of a hero of romance you could find in it almost anything you looked for. Frigid and yet friendly, frank yet cautious, shrewd yet credulous, positive yet sceptical, confident yet shy, extremely intelligent and extremely good-humoured, there was something vaguely defiant in its concessions and something profoundly reassuring in its reserve. The wide yet partly folded wings of this gentleman's moustache, with the two premature wrinkles in the cheek above it, and the fashion of his garments, in which an exposed shirt-front and a blue satin necktie of too light a shade played perhaps an obtrusive part, completed the elements of his identity. 

Same passage from the original version published in 1877
His complexion was brown, and his nose had a bold well-marked arch. His eye was of a clear, cold gray, and save for a rather abundant moustache he was clean-shaved. He had the flat jaw and sinewy neck which are frequent in the American type; but the traces of national origin are a matter of expression even more than of feature, and it was in this respect that our friend’s countenance was supremely eloquent. The discriminating observer we have been supposing might, however, perfectly have measured its expressiveness, and yet have been at a loss to describe it. It had that typical vagueness which is not vacuity, that blankness which is not simplicity, that look of being committed to nothing in particular, of standing in an attitude of general hospitality to the chances of life, of being very much at one’s own disposal so characteristic of many American faces. It was our friend’s eye that chiefly told his story; an eye in which innocence and experience were singularly blended. It was full of contradictory suggestions, and though it was by no means the glowing orb of a hero of romance, you could find in it almost anything you looked for. Frigid and yet friendly, frank yet cautious, shrewd yet credulous, positive yet sceptical, confident yet shy, extremely intelligent and extremely good-humored, there was something vaguely defiant in its concessions, and something profoundly reassuring in its reserve. The cut of this gentleman’s moustache, with the two premature wrinkles in the cheek above it, and the fashion of his garments, in which an exposed shirt-front and a cerulean cravat played perhaps an obtrusive part, completed the conditions of his identity. 

Saturday, March 28, 2020

the whim of almighty Work!

An excerpt from Zola's The Masterpiece about the trials and tribulations of being an artist. The character speaking these lines, Sandoz, is a thinly veiled self-portrait of Zola himself.
The thing is, work has simply swamped my whole existence. Slowly but surely it’s robbed me of my mother, my wife, and everything that meant anything to me. It’s like a germ planted in the skull that devours the brain, spreads to the trunk and the limbs, and destroys the entire body in time. No sooner am I out of bed in the morning than work clamps down on me and pins me to my desk before I’ve even had a breath of fresh air. It follows me to lunch and I find myself chewing over sentences as I’m chewing my food. It goes with me when I go out, eats out of my plate at dinner and shares my pillow in bed at night. It’s so completely merciless that once the process of creation is started, it’s impossible for me to stop it, and it goes on growing and working even when I’m asleep. … Outside that, nothing, nobody exists. I go up to see my mother, but I’m so absorbed that ten minutes afterwards I’m asking myself whether I’ve been up to her or not. As for my wife, she has no husband, poor thing; we’re never really together any more, even when we’re hand-in-hand! Sometimes I feel so acutely aware that I’m making them both unhappy that I’m overcome with remorse, for happiness in a home depends so much on kindness and frankness and gaiety. But do what I will, I can’t escape entirely from the monster’s clutches, and I’m soon back in the semiconscious state that goes with creation and just as sullen and indifferent as I always am when I’m working. If the morning’s writing’s gone smoothly, all well and good; if it hasn’t, all’s not so good; and so the whole household laughs or cries to the whim of almighty Work! … That’s the situation. I’ve nothing now I can call my own. In the bad old days I used to dream about foreign travel or restful holidays in the country. Now that I could have both, here I am hemmed in by work, with no hope of so much as a brisk walk in the morning, a free moment to visit an old friend, or a moment’s self-indulgence! I haven’t even a will of my own; it’s become a habit now to lock my door on the world outside and throw my key out of the window. … So there we are, cribbed and confined together, my work and me. And in the end it’ll devour me, and that will be the end of that! 
One of the recurring themes in the novel is the critique of romantic conception of the "Artist" as someone hankering after an impossible ideal, a kind of mystical and harmonious whole. Zola instead wanted writers and artists to be like sober-minded scientists, (or "naturalists" in its original sense) but like all true artists he gives the best lines to characters speaking against his own view.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Some Notes on Émile Zola's La Débâcle

When you call your novel La Débâcle, there is really not much suspense regarding how the story of the war will unfold, even if you don't know much of the subject in question, namely the history of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. In fact, Zola himself summarizes the story of the debacle very early in the novel, in fact in the first chapter itself when he gives the following words to one of his characters who is visiting the soldiers who are waiting for orders to maneuver to the battlefronts.

the ageing Empire, still cheered by the people but rotten at the core, having undermined the nation’s pride in itself by taking away liberty, returning to a liberal stance too late and to its own damnation, poised to crumble and fall the moment it failed to satisfy the appetite for worldly pleasures which it had itself unleashed; without doubt the army possessed an admirable pedigree for bravery, heaped with laurels from Italy and the Crimea, but it had been marred by the practice of buying one’s way out of national service, had got stuck in the old routine of the African school, and was too confident of victory to think of trying to develop new techniques; finally you had the generals, most of them mediocre, consumed by rivalries, some of them staggeringly ignorant, with the Emperor at their head, ailing and indecisive, deceived by others, deceiving himself, in the dreadful adventure which was now beginning, where everyone was leaping in blindly, with no serious preparation, stampeding in terror like a herd of cattle being led to the slaughterhouse.
If you have read Zola's earlier novels in the Rougon-Macquart cycle (La Débâcle is the 19th, the penultimate novel) you would know what he means by "taking away liberty" and "returning to the liberal stance too late" and also what means by unleashing the appetite for worldly pleasures. Zola documented all these in his novels like The Belly of Paris, The Kill and Nana. La Débâcle can only be read as a postscript to those earlier novels in the cycle, because otherwise this theme of the second empire facing its endgame and getting its just comeuppance, which is really a central concern for Zola, wouldn't make that much of an impression. In this sense, this is definitely not something you should read if you are new to Zola. Also worth noting is the phrase from the last line in the passage above, "like a herd of cattle being led to the slaughterhouse" because Zola will keep coming back to similar images and metaphors throughout his representation of the war in the novel.

Like all of Zola's novels, this is also very neatly structured. (Zola spent as much time, if not more, planning and researching his novels as he did in writing them.) La Débâcle is divided into three parts, each about 150-200 pages long. In the first part, which is set over a few days in the last week of August 1870, we follow a small army division as they try to follow confusing orders from the high command. They move forward only to retreat back to the position they already left, where again they wait agonizingly as they get new orders to move to a new position and all this while they are short of food rations and suffering from low morale. Like Zola alluded in the quoted passage above, it was all due to the senior military commanders' lack of preparation and poor understanding of military logistics. The French military commanders and leaders were in this sense no match to Bismarck and Helmuth von Moltke, the Prussian chief of military staff, both of whom are now actually considered the finest military and strategic minds of the nineteenth century Europe. The Prussians were able to move vast number of soldiers and huge army divisions much more quickly than the French which ultimately proved decisive in the end. Zola mentions at one point in the novel that the French military leaders didn't even have maps of their own terrain and had little understanding of the geography which would cause logistics problems, they only had maps of Prussia!

Zola as is always the case, is very good at intermingling micro and macro perspectives. Most of the time the narrative hews close to the perspective of two protagonists: Jean, a former soldier who fought in the battle of Solferino and who had a tragic experience when he decided to build his life as a peasant (Zola tells this story in "Earth") and Maurice, a young Parisian with a nervous and hysterical disposition (Zola repeatedly stresses his "effeminacy") who has lived a dissolute life in Paris supported by the sacrifices of his twin sister Henriette. Maurice sees war as his chance to redeem his life, in the eyes of himself and his sister. Maurice is also presented as an "intellectual" (somewhat similar to Lazare in Zola's The Bright Side of Life) who has some very interesting ideas on the nature of life and the justification of war. (More on this later.) The growing friendship and attachment between Jean and Maurice, and there are ample hints to suggest that it could be sexual attachment too, forms an important strand of the story here.

Even when we remain close to the perspective of Jean and Maurice, Zola makes sure that we know what else is going on in the battle. In this sense, it is very different from the representation of the war in Stendhal's "The Charterhouse of Parma", which is depicted purely from the individual perspective of Fabrizio and because of which we experience war as only chaos and confusion, sometimes even comic confusion. Zola here uses different kinds of narrative devices, some readers may even feel that these are clumsy devices, like a character randomly picking up a week old newspaper and reciting all the events that have happened on different battle fronts and in Paris, or a civilian character visiting the camp and telling them about what is happening outside and all the rumours circulating, both exaggerating the wins and also the defeats. At one point we are told that Maurice's grandfather fought in the Napoleonic campaigns, which gives Zola an excuse to give a long history of all those battles, basically depicting the French self-understanding of being the only superpower in Europe at the time, and bring to perspective the big shock that awaited them!

The second part of the novel chronicles the events of the battle of Sedan, when the army division that Jean and Maurice were part of reaches Sedan and joins others already waiting there. Zola narrates the events of a single day of the battle over almost 200 pages from multiple different perspective. We of course get the battle sequences, but we also see civilians participating in the war in many different ways. In fact this was probably my favourite part of the book. The sequence where Henriette makes a journey arcoss the battle zone to find out the fate of her husband Weiss is heartstopping and it shows Zola at the peak of his mastery. Battle of Sedan is pretty much presented as a slaughterhouse as he had alluded earlier in the novel, with long descriptions of unimaginable loss and destruction.

Zola further ups the ante in the third part of the novel when it comes to depicting the aftermath of the disaster. We get long descriptions of scenes set in the makeshift hospital with endless descriptions of battle wounds, amputations and deaths. The image of dead bodies being thrown on the "charnel heap" is not easily forgotten. We also see the appalling conditions of French soldiers in the prisoner of war camp as they struggle with hunger and starvation. There is a revolting scene of a starving horse being butchered for raw meat, Zola doesn't spare you any of the ugly details and you need a strong stomach and heart to read through these passages. In the middle of all these apocalyptic situations, the sordid human drama continues apace. We see the failed and disappointed hopes of innocents, we see people making use of the situation to make profit, we see betrayals, we see summary executions, we even see adultery!

In the last two chapters of the novel, the scene shifts back to Paris. Zola through a complicated and somewhat clumsy narrative maneuvering brings all three main characters Jean, Maurice and Henriette together for a final confrontation. After about 500 pages Zola seemed in a hurry to finish the novel so we get a short and rapid crash course in the history of the Paris commune. Some readers who think of Zola as a leftist revolutionary radical will be a little surprised to read these passages. He portrays the revolution as unleashing of violent and beastly passions, something irrational and destructive in its contempt for the rule of law and to sanctity of property and ultimately contrary to the true patriotic spirit of France, specially in its fratricidal struggle. He makes the fratricidal battle almost literal when he makes Jean stab Maurice (though unwittingly and without recognizing him) with his bayonet fatally during a struggle. There are unforgettable descriptions of fire engulfing the big government buildings, specially resonant given the recent event with Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. Although harsh on the communards, Zola is no less critical of the other side who he openly calls butchers, for their summary executions in which they not only killed innocents but even women and children.

Before I end I wanted to touch on a rather troubling theme in the novel. This is also something that links this novel to Zola's aesthetic and philosophical doctrines, which were hugely controversial at the time and still provoke debate and passionate disagreements. This is his tendency to reduce history and politics, and indeed the whole of reality to biological or "naturalistic" imperatives. He gives some of these thoughts in the novel to Maurice, who is presented as an intellectual figure from Paris and contrasts it with more commonsensical optimist figure of the peasant Jean (although this itself is in contradiction to Zola's dark and pessimistic portrait of peasantry in "Earth"). Take the following thought for example:

But Maurice, back in the thrall of his learning, was thinking about the necessity of war, war which is life itself, war which is the law of the world. After all, wasn’t it man, full of pity, who had introduced the idea of peace and justice, while impassive nature is nothing but an endless massacre?
Even when he is dying at the end, he can't stop thinking:
War’s life, and life can’t exist without death.
Since this idea is presented in a "dialogic" form in the novel and is undercut by Jean's perspective, so this is really hard to argue that novel presents this as an argument but one can still see a connection with Zola's doctrines here. Although Zola of course couldn't have known it at that time but this kind of biological mysticism and the related philosophy of vitalism (or what the Germans call Lebensphilosophie) had an entirely deleterious impact on 20th century European history with its contribution to the doctrines of racial decline and race survival and of course to racism, fascism, genocide and the ideology of the perpetual war. Christopher Clark in his book "The Sleepwalkers," which is about the origins of the first world war, says that the fact that so many diplomats and intellectuals, specially in France and Germany, took the idea of war as a necessity for racial survival was one of the major factors in the breakdown of negotiations which could have prevented the war. Anyway, this is a big and complicated topic and certainly something that I am not fully intellectually qualified to comment on meaningfully. I hope to read and think more on it in due course.

Be that as it may, I still consider it to be a major work not just in Zola's own oeuvre but the whole of 19th century European novel and the literature of war. That said, you shouldn't read this if you are new to Zola. Read L'Assommoir, Germinal and Earth first.

Friday, April 5, 2019

An excerpt from The Radetzky March

An excerpt from The Radetzky March, which clarifies some of its central themes


It was very still. The final glint of twilight had long since vanished. Through the narrow gaps of the green blinds they could have seen a few stars in the sky. The broad and blaring chant of the frogs had been replaced by the quiet metallic chant of the nightly field crickets. From time to time they heard the harsh cry of the cuckoo.

The district captain, put in an unfamiliar, almost enchanted state by the alcohol, the bizarre surroundings, and the count’s unusual words, stole a glance at his son, merely to see a close and familiar person. But Carl Joseph too seemed neither close nor familiar to him. Perhaps Chojnicki was correct and they all really no longer existed: not the Fatherland nor the district captain nor his son! Straining greatly, Herr von Trotta managed to ask, “I don’t understand. How can you say the monarchy no longer exists?”

“Naturally!” replied Chojnicki. “In literal terms, it still exists. We still have an army”—the count pointed at the lieutenant—“and officials”—the count pointed at the district captain—“but the monarchy is disintegrating while still alive; it is doomed! An old man, with one foot in the grave, endangered whenever his nose runs, keeps the old throne through the sheer miracle that he can still sit on it. How much longer, how much longer? This era no longer wants us! This era wants to create independent nation-states! People no longer believe in God. The new religion is nationalism. Nations no longer go to church. They go to national associations. Monarchy, our monarchy, is founded on piety, on the faith that God chose the Hapsburgs to rule over so and so many Christian nations. Our Kaiser is a secular brother of the Pope, he is His Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty; no other is as apostolic, no other majesty in Europe is as dependent on the grace of God and on the faith of the nations in the grace of God. The German Kaiser still rules even when God abandons him; perhaps by the grace of the nation. The Emperor of Austria-Hungary must not be abandoned by God. But God has abandoned him!”

The district captain rose to his feet. He would never have believed there could exist a person in this world who could say that God had abandoned the Kaiser. All his life he had left matters of heaven to the theologians and regarded the church, the mass, the Corpus Christi ceremony, the clergy, and the Good Lord as institutions of the monarchy; but now all at once, the count’s statement seemed to explain all the confusion he had been feeling for the past few weeks, especially since old Jacques’s death. That was it: God had abandoned the old Kaiser! The district captain took a few steps, the old boards creaking under his feet. He went over to the window, and through the gaps in the blinds he saw the narrow stripes of the dark-blue night. All processes in nature and all events of everyday life suddenly achieved an ominous and incomprehensible meaning. Incomprehensible was the whispering chorus of crickets, incomprehensible the twinkling of the stars, incomprehensible the velvety blue of the night, incomprehensible the district captain’s trip to the border and his visit with this count. He returned to the table and ran his hand over one sideburn, as he would do whenever he felt a bit perplexed. A bit perplexed? Never had he been as perplexed as he was now!

In front of him stood a full glass. He swiftly drained it. “So,” he said, “you believe, you believe that we—”

“Are doomed,” Chojnicki completed. “We are doomed, you and your son and I. We are, I tell you, the last members of a world in which God sheds his grace on majesties, and lunatics like myself make gold. Listen! Look!” And Chojnicki stood up, went to the door, turned a switch, and the lights on the large chandelier shone. “Look!” said Chojnicki again. “This is the age of electricity, not alchemy. Chemistry too, you know! Do you know what this thing is called? Nitroglycerine.” The count articulated each syllable. “Nitroglycerine!” he repeated. “No more gold! In Franz Joseph’s palace they still often burn candles. Do you understand? Nitroglycerine and electricity will be the death of us! It won’t last much longer, not much longer!”