Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘French literature’

I finally finished Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet Friday afternoon. I love how Balzac writes, even when he does narrative summation – something which can overwhelm sometimes in older novels. But Balzac manages to keep the tension alive even when he’s covering several years and lots of events in a single paragraph. Perhaps it’s the power and inflection of his narrative voice. Or the sheer confidence of his storytelling.

Eugénie Grandet is primarily a love story. Although I would argue it has two main characters. First is Eugénie, who falls in love with her cousin. And second is Eugénie’s father, whose love and devotion to his money gives Eugénie’s less-experienced passion some stiff competition. And of course the book isn’t really JUST a love story. It’s about greed and family legacy, about small-town social machinations, religious devotion and martyrdom. This last theme is what I found myself reading for the most. Balzac makes Eugénie into a perfect martyr and her movement toward that decision (because really, it’s her choice) was fascinating.

Eugénie Grandet is filled with all sorts of surprises. The first surprise to me was Eugénie. Balzac describes her in the beginning as an ignorant fool. And she is. But she develops over the novel in such a way that you almost wonder whether he was teasing you to start. For example, the very first time she’s confronted with a difficult choice (between her father’s wishes and her desire to please her cousin), she doesn’t hesitate for a second to find a way around her father. She may be ignorant but she very quickly digs her heels in and decides to do what will make her happiest. That self-will transforms itself into something self-defeating later on as she accepts a series of disappointments.

Something else I find surprising is the way Balzac doesn’t pull his punches. His entire project was to reveal the multi-faceted face of humanity and he doesn’t disappoint. Eugénie’s cousin Charles is a good indication of how well Balzac understood human nature. Charles evolves over the course of the novel and the result is fairly disappointing until you realize how many clues Balzac leaves along the way. Charles’ character develops as a result of circumstances and personality, two aspects of human existence Balzac grasps nearly perfectly.

It’s funny to me how much more often people give themselves Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu as a project. I think Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine might be even better – more entertaining and just as insightful. They are very different projects, if we take the author’s intention as a starting point, but both deal with the fundamentals of existence. A comparison of these two monumental works would be fascinating – I won’t be volunteering for that job anytime soon, just throwing the idea out there for someone else!

Any takers?

Next week I’m meeting up with my French book group for the second time. Our first meeting went relatively well, although I was a little worried about the number of people who insisted we should be reading police thrillers. Call me biased (or well, okay, a snob) but I would rather we stick to contemporary or classic literature. I don’t mind police thrillers and mystery books, I will even read one on occasion, but I’m not sure they provide the kind of substance for a truly extensive book group discussion. I feel kindof guilty admitting this but there you go.

Anyway, our book for this next meeting (a choice I fanagled like a happy little bookish dictator) is one of my favorites from the Swiss author C.F. Ramuz, La Beauté Sur la Terre (Beauty on Earth), and I am contentedly re-reading it this week in preparation. The novel was written in 1927 but is stylistically quite modern with an unusual narrative approach. The narrator implicates the reader in the telling of the story as though the reader, alongside the narrator, was actually standing inside the frame of many scenes, looking in on the action like an invisible presence. When I first read the book, I remember feeling kind of strange and unsteady, it was such a direct request for me to join in, but the more I’ve read the book, and the fact that the story takes place in a village just down the hill from where I now live, makes me enjoy the level of participation Ramuz demands.

Rereading is such a different experience compared to the first time you get your hands on a book. I’m not preoccupied with what will happen within the story, or trying to figure out the characters; I can spend all my energy just picking the sentences apart and noting details I’ve already forgotten or maybe didn’t catch on earlier reads. Like this next passage:

Les nuages avaient été longtemps sur le ciel comme une couche de glace sale; tout à coup ils s’étaient crevassés en tout sens. Le ciel, apparu dans les fentes, faisait là-haut des espèces de rigoles, comme dans un pré irrigué.

I’ll translate that in a second, but I want to describe the region where I live first because I think it helps explain why I love these two sentences so much. Lake Geneva sits in a lopsided bowl at about 300m altitude. My side (in Switzerland) and in particular, the region where I live, was first settled by the Romans and they built terraced vineyards that slope steeply down to the lake edge.  A series of small villages dot the vineyards and are connected by windy roads. The upper end of the lake opens up to a sharp valley, with steep mountains on both sides. Those mountains extend back along the French side so if you’re standing in the vineyards looking out across the lake, the mountains form a formidable wall. When the weather is bright, the space appears vast – a wide stretch of lake, green forests climbing up toward the mountain peaks and then a wide blue sky beyond, but when there are clouds and the mountains and sky vanish, the space retracts to what seems like a few feet of gray water. It’s an incredible trick of perspective.

And now for a translation:

The clouds had been hanging in the sky for ages like a layer of muddy snow; suddenly they broke up into crevices in all directions. The sky, which showed through the cracks, created what looked like gullies in an irrigated field.

That isn’t perfect but it will do for now. Two things about this: first, he manages to express the extraordinary texture of the moment the weather changes over the mountains and opens up toward the vineyards, and second, he very subtly gives the moment its due joy. In the French version you’ll see he uses the word “rigoles” which I’ve translated as “gullies” but there is another, unrelated word in French, “rigoler”, which means “to laugh or joke about”. So not only is the sky opening up but that movement contains laughter and teasing.

Isn’t that wonderful? And how sad the nuance gets lost in the translation.

I sat down with Aristotle’s Poetics last night and had a good laugh when I got to his section on the best kind of tragic plots. Aristotle points out that in order for the audience to experience pity and fear (his criteria for excellence) the hero or heroine must not be of outstanding moral character, nor depraved. Both these extremes would be too difficult for the audience to identify with. We’re left with the ordinary individual. The kind of person who experiences just enough undeserved suffering for us to pity them but who creates just enough of the same kind of mischief we might feel inclined to dabble in ourselves to make us nervous about our own life.


The reason I laughed is because I just finished Madame Bovary. And I think Aristotle would have taken Flaubert out and bought him champagne. Both Emma and Charles (and Rodolphe and Leon, for that matter) are so perfectly mediocre. Just earnest enough for us to sympathize with but just selfish, just cowardly enough for us to want to keep a weary distance.


I first read Madame Bovary in college. I remember enjoying it. I remember feeling sorry for Emma. I remember disliking lunky Charles and thinking it was so unfair she couldn’t just run off with the men she loved. To put it bluntly, I think I kind of missed the entire point.


Reading the novel again was fun. I still feel sorry for Emma, for her silly selfishness and desperate scheming, but I think Flaubert did something much more than write a scandalous account of adultery and feminine ruin. He characterized the maudlin yearnings of a mediocre bourgeoisie while criticizing the superficial sentimentality of mass culture. Two very scathing social assessments, both still relevant to a contemporary discussion.


It’s hard to decide who is the more pathetic of the two – Charles or Emma. Charles seems unbelievably clueless for a long time, which is far less interesting, until just after Emma kills herself when there is an affecting scene between Charles and Rodolphe (Emma’s first lover) and it becomes quite apparent that he knew all along. I looked at Charles differently after that and it made me reconsider why Flaubert begins and ends the book with Charles.


Madame Bovary isn’t really a tragedy (Aristotle would have figured this one out much more quickly than I did) – it’s a satire. Charles is an anti-hero, Emma a false heroine. It’s sad when she dies but not unexpected – and Charles mourns her, but it seems fairly dismal to mourn the woman who never really loved you. Like Revolutionary Road (a modern meditation on a similar theme) the real tragedy befalls Berthe – their daughter. Unloved, unwanted, and uncared for, she ends up an impoverished worker at a cotton mill.


I deliberately avoided reading the Nabokov essay until I’d written up my thoughts but I’m eager to get started and see what he has to say. There are also several film versions of Madame Bovary but two I am particularly interested in finding – a 1949 Minnelli with Jennifer Jones playing Emma and the most recent, from 1991 with the lovely Isabelle Huppert and an apparently outstanding performance by Jean-Francois Balmer as Charles.