Archive

Archive for May, 2013

La Locandiera by Carlo Goldoni

May 30, 2013 11 comments

La Locandiera by Carlo Goldoni 1753 English title: The Mistress of the Inn. Directed by Marc Paquien.

Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) is an Italian playwright who wrote 159 plays and 83 operas. I still wonder why I’d never heard of him before watching La Locandiera last month.

goldoni_locandieraLa Locandiera is a comedy with a rather simple plot. Mirandolina is the mistress of an inn. She’s a pretty coquette and enjoys being wooed by men. She currently has two suitors, the Marquis of Forlipopoli and the Count of Albafiorita. The first comes from impoverished nobility. He tries to put forward his nobility and his title to seduce Mirandolina. The second is of minor nobility but he’s very wealthy and tries to ravish her with expensive gifts. They fight for her, each of them convinced that his assets give him the best chance to win her heart. Both men are guests at Mirandolina’s inn and have stayed there before. Mirandolina doesn’t fancy any of them; she’s just a flirt and she enjoys the attention. As a single woman running a business, the society expects her to get married to rely on a husband. She’s not so eager to give up her freedom for marriage and for a man so she keeps them at arm’s length.

This time, a third man stays at the inn, the Knight of Ripafratta. He’s a confirmed bachelor who loathes women. He thinks they are useless creatures, too high maintenance for him and that he’s better off without a wife. In other words, he enjoys his freedom and openly makes fun of the Marquis of Forlipopoli and the Count of Albafiorita for being smitten with Mirandolina. He mocks their attitude, their devotion and their petty fight over her.

On her side, Mirandolina resents Ripafratta’s attitude and decides to seduce him, just to defend her sex. Instead of being coy, flirtatious or fulfilling his expectations of the female behaviour, she acts exactly the opposite. She offers sensible conversation, makes blunt comments and lets him understand she’s not on the market for a husband. He starts thinking she’s different. He seeks her company and quickly falls for her.

Goldoni admired Molière a lot and his master is present in this comedy. Mirandolina uses her charms to get something from men, like Béline in The Imaginary Invalid. Ripafratta is as grouchy and disenchanted with women as Alceste in The Misanthropist. His illogical distaste of women sounds like Arnolphe in The School For Wives. Like Arnolphe, he shapes his life around a misconception of women and a hasty generalization of their nature.

Goldoni’s characters are caricatures, something Molière excelled at painting. A conceited marquis thinks that nobility can forgive miserliness and justifies looking down on people. A rich count behaves like a nouveau riche and is firmly convinced that money can buy him love. All these elements link Goldoni to Molière and the tradition of the comedia dell arte.

LA LOCANDIERA (Marc PAQUIEN) 2013But Goldoni doesn’t belong to the 17thC. In Molière, characters don’t toy with other people’s feelings. They lie, they use their charm, they play on seduction to have power or marry a rich man or go around a father’s choice of a husband. They don’t play with emotions to prove a point, they play tricks to get something for themselves but not to harm someone else. The tricks are mostly to serve a cause that the spectator supports. It’s Scapin helping with a marriage between two young people in love and preventing the girl’s father from marrying her to an older man. It’s not cruel. Moreover, Molière always strives to point out the trials of his contemporaries. I don’t think Goldoni has this intention in his play.

In La Locandiera, Mirandolina is a little cruel and doesn’t mind hurting Ripafratta for the sake of her argument. This is where Goldoni joins his century and sounds like Marivaux in The Game of Love and Chance or Laclos in The Dangerous Liaisons. In Marivaux, characters play dangerous games where feelings are involved and people can get hurt.

Goldoni is a mix of Molière and Marivaux and since I love both playwrights, I had a great time watching La Locandiera. It was directed by Marc Paquien who has also directed Happy Days by Samuel Beckett and The Learned Ladies by Molière which I found very good too. I enjoyed what he’s done with the play. He respected traditional clothes, but the text could have been transposed in today’s world. Dominique Blanc played Mirandolina and it was a pleasure to see her on stage. She’s as excellent as you could imagine. André Marcon was a wonderful Ripafratta, frowing at the right places and genuinely at loss when his heart betrays him and goes to Mirandolina.

Have you ever watched or studied Goldoni?

So long, Marlowe, you’re a swell private dick

May 26, 2013 40 comments

Trouble Is My business by Raymond Chandler. French title: Les ennuis, c’est mon problème.

Chandler_TroubleTrouble Is My Business is our Book Club’s choice for May. It’s a collection of four long short-stories, all featuring the iconic Philip Marlowe. It includes Trouble Is My Business (1939), Finger Man (1934), Gold Fish (1936) and Red Wind (1938). I’m not going to describe each story, I think it would be tedious to read. Suffice to say that I enjoyed the two last ones better than the two first, I found the plots easier to follow. To be honest, I took more pleasure in the atmosphere of the stories, the descriptions of the characters, the snapshots of LA than in the actual stories.

Trouble Is My Business is all about atmosphere. It’s gambling in shady places, crooks who cheat at the roulette, dubious politicians, gangsters, real and fake pearls, beautiful women, insurance rewards and encounters with the law. It involves a lot of guns, fights, killings, settlement of scores and kidnappings. Marlowe generally manages to lose his gun, takes physical blows with philosophy and gets away from all kinds of perilous situations. Being a European, I have never seen a gun in my life, so I sure don’t know the difference between a .22 and a .38. It seems to matter as Chandler keeps mentioning the calibre of the weapons. I had to look for pictures on the internet.

We’re in what we now call classic Noir. The stories are set in Chandler’s faded office in LA, in casinos or impersonal apartments or luxurious hotel suites. It means cigarettes smoke, hats, cigars and whiskey. A lot of whiskey. Marlowe’s judgement is sometimes clouded by alcohol:

So far I had only made four mistakes. The first was mixing in at all, even for Kathy Horne’s sake. The second was staying mixed after I found Peeler Mardo dead. The third was letting Rush Madder see I knew what he was talking about. The fourth, the whiskey, was the worst.

These four stories show different facets of Marlowe: friend with a crook, cooperating with the DA, working for an insurer, accepting jobs as a subcontractor for another PI. He’s always short of cash and thus ready to take on any job to earn money as long as it doesn’t flirt too dangerously with illegality.

More than anything else, I LOVE Chandler’s style. His style is brilliant and I’m not even sure I really catch how brilliant it is since English isn’t my native language. I just know I don’t want to read him in French, unless it’s translated by Boris Vian. For example, I don’t agree with the French translation of Trouble Is My Business. In English, business can be understood as “it’s my occupation” since taking care of other people’s troubles is a PI’s job, and also as a reference to his meddling in other people’s life, like in the expression it’s none of your business. When it’s translated into Les ennuis, c’est mon problème, only the second meaning remains. With Les ennuis, c’est mon business or Les ennuis, c’est mes affaires, you can keep both meanings. In any case, this translation is still better than the former one, Les pépins, c’est mes oignons. But back to Chandler’s style. Brilliant, I was saying.

I love the short sentences, the economy of words, the punching images that paint a whole picture with short, strong and confident strokes of his literary paintbrush. In the blink of a paragraph, he takes you to a troubled night in LA.

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

In a few sentences, you see a man, his social position and have a glimpse of his character:

The man who sat behind a flat desk was Frank Dorr, the politico. He was the kind of man who liked to have a desk in front of him, and shove his fat stomach against it, and fiddle with things on it, and look very wise.

Chandler_ProblèmeIn a phrase, he can describe a woman (A redheaded number with bedroom eyes.) or a predicament (His eyes measured me for a coffin, in spite of their suffering.) Is there another adjective than brilliant?

His stories are engrossing because they’re told by Marlowe himself. We hear Philip Marlowe. Although I haven’t seen a lot of black and white movies – for some reason I have trouble staying in front of a film when I’m not in a cinema—I could see the cinematographic side of the short-stories with Marlowe’s voice-over. I couldn’t imagine it differently from a low voice, spoken smoothly but with clenched teeth and typical American pronounciation that makes me read subtitles because I don’t understand everything. The fact that the PI relates the story himself creates a bond with the reader and makes the stories more attractive. Of course Marlowe’s attitude toward life and its little coincidences, adventures and disillusion add to the mix.

I ended up musing about the Chandler paradox: he writes in a genre you usually read more for the plot than for the style and I ended up reading him more for the style than for the plot.

Is what Zola describes in Money accurate?

May 17, 2013 10 comments

L’argent by Emile Zola. 1891. (Money).

Disclaimer: I have probably made mistakes on the business terms I use in this post. I had to check them in the dictionary and it can be perilous. Moreover, there are spoilers in this billet but I’m not sure it would really ruin the suspense of the book for someone who hasn’t read it.

As I mentioned in my previous entry about Money by Zola, I was engrossed by the business details described in the book and I wanted to research a little bit the laws for banking in the Second Empire. I’ve had trouble finding sources but I eventually found information on Wikipedia and stumbled across a very useful essay.

The underlying question was: is Zola accurate in his descriptions of the financial circles at the time or when he depicts of the speculation? The answer is yes. I’m not saying that he got all the details right, I don’t have time to check that thoroughly. From what I’ve read, I think he picked details in different episodes that occurred from 1850 until the time he wrote the novel and painted an accurate overall picture.

Why a volume about banking?

I’ve read that the 1850-1860s were the years of big changes in the banking world. Most of today’s French banks were founded at the time. With the development of railroad, steel industries and other industries requiring large funds to be launched, it appeared that the circulation of money wasn’t satisfactory. Before the Second Empire, banks were run by families upon their own fortune and they were responsible of the debts of the bank on their own money. In Great-Britain, the banking system had already gone through important changes (first “modern” bank in 1834) and the business circles in Paris wanted to do the same in France. In 1863, just a year before the story of Saccard starts, the regulation for founding a Société Anonyme (a Plc) became more flexible. As long as the capital wasn’t over 25 million Francs, you didn’t need a State authorization to found the bank. With a Société Anonyme, the shareholders of the company are no longer obliged to reimburse the losses on their own fortune. It’s not a surprise that the Banque Universelle starts with 25 million francs; Saccard doesn’t need a clearance from the government, and thus from his brother, the powerful Rougon, to start his bank.

Was the Société Anonyme of the 1860s very different from today’s?

I was very interested in the information Zola gives on the articles of incorporation of the Banque Universelle. Some regulations already existed but no controls were done and the rules were breached. For example, just as today, all shares must be subscribed to complete an increase in capital; a company isn’t allowed to own their own stock, the shares must be paid at least up to 25% at the moment of the subscription. (And, I guessed, the rest of the cash needed to be paid within 4 years.) This hasn’t changed. I thought the Board of Directors had too many members for proper governance. How do you run a company with a Board of 20 people? There was already a control of the accounts, done by two auditors.

Et il n’y avait plus qu’à élire les deux commissaires censeurs, chargés de présenter à l’assemblée un rapport sur le bilan et de contrôler ainsi les comptes fournis par les administrateurs : fonction délicate autant qu’inutile, pour laquelle Saccard avait désigné un sieur Rousseau et un sieur Lavignière, le premier complètement inféodé au second, celui-ci grand, blond, très poli, approuvant toujours, dévoré de l’envie d’entrer plus tard dans le conseil, lorsqu’on serait content de ses services. It then only remained for them to elect the two auditors, whose duty it would be to examine and report on the balance sheets and in this way check the accounts supplied by the management—functions, at once delicate and useless, for which Saccard had designated a certain Sieur Kousseau and a Sieur Lavignière, the first completely under the influence of the second, who was a tall, fair-haired fellow with very polite manners and a disposition to approve of everything, being consumed with a desire to become a member of the board when the latter, later on, should express satisfaction with his services.

Although the English word is auditor, it is clear in French (commissaires censeurs) that these two persons don’t have the same independence and the same right to investigate as today’s commissaires aux comptes. (also auditors). When I was reading, the structure of the 1864 Société Anonyme sounded familiar; there are more controls today and more regulations but the general framework is the same. The controls are more efficient, even if they aren’t perfect.

Saccard and the white collar crimes committed in Money.

A few weeks before reading Money, I attended a fascinating conference by a commissaire detached from the police force to the service of the AMF, the French SEC. He was presenting all the criminal offences a CFO could commit and well, Saccard made them all: bankruptcy, paper dividends, fraudulent financial statements, insider trading. He also explained how the AMF monitors stock exchanges to detect abnormal changes in stock market prices, sometimes leading to an investigation. Any time a big event is announced for a company (a merger for example), the AMF checks out the stock market price on the few days or weeks before the announcement. There is no such control in Money. The financial circles perfectly know that the stock market prices are manipulated. Big investors use the Bourse to fight personal battles and ruin companies. Investors also play for their own profit. The battle between bulls and bears at the Bourse really occurred in these years, causing havoc in the economy.

Money, the scandals at the Bourse and the collapse of the Union Générale in 1882

According to Wikipedia, the climate around banks was really the one described in Money. A Jules Mirès used the press to manipulate the opinion and attract investments on certain stock. The press was linked to the business circles in unethical ways. In Money, Saccard buys a newspaper and advertises a lot about the profits and the activity of the Banque Universelle. An Achille Fould who wasn’t on speaking terms with his brother, used his position as a minister to fight against the liberalization asked by the business circles. Saccard isn’t on speaking terms with Rougon, who is still in the government. Rougon takes the opportunity to kill Saccard when he has the chance.

The Union Générale was a Catholic bank founded in 1878 by Eugène Bontoux. It went bankrupt in 1882, it lasted four years, like the Banque Universelle in Money. The pope’s secretary was involved in the capital, it invested in North Africa and in Egypt. In Money, the Banque Universelle, a similar name to Union Générale, is close to Catholic investors. Saccard and Hamelin want the Banque Universelle to help settle the pope back in Jerusalem and meanwhile it invests in Turkey and Lebanon.

The value of the Union Générale grows until January 1882 when it collapsed. It came from an overcapitalization of the company, bad governance as the company owned their own shares and from a deadly fight between bulls and bears. Many small investors were involved through brokers and lost their fortunes. It generated a violent recession with social consequences. It’s exactly what happens in Money. Bontoux fled to Spain; Saccard immigrates to Holland. At the time, the opinion reacted strongly to this scandal because of the speculation that happened, the involvement of clergymen in the capital of the bank. It inspired Zola who had the genius to link the speculation on properties in the wake of the transformation of Paris by Haussmann to the speculation on stock markets. Saccard is the link as he is a participant in both frenzies. It shows an atmosphere of thirst for money that was, from what I read, a reality in those years.

Money and the anti-Semitism

Money was published before the Dreyfus Affair started and we all know what role Zola played in it. Zola already describes the rampant anti-Semitism of the business circles, especially in the bank industry. I was ill-at-ease when I read Saccard’s outbursts against Jewish bankers. Sadly, it appears it was accurate; Catholic bankers made a point to fight against Jewish ones. The roots for the Dreyfus Affair are there and it confirms what Proust depicts in In Search of Lost Time. It grows slowly but strongly; it shows that Vichy could happen because there were strong roots for anti-Semitism before the war.

The little research I’ve done proves that Zola is accurate in the description of the events, of the climate of that time. I found Money fascinating because it’s really the creation of modern capitalism. I have to say I’m not satisfied with this billet because I would have liked to dig a little bit more. I don’t have time for this, unfortunately. So it goes.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

May 12, 2013 38 comments

Hemingway_FarewellI picked A Farewell to Arms on a whim as I was visiting the area where part of the story is set. I had steered clear of Hemingway after a disastrous collective reading of The Old Man and the Sea in school. The experience was so painful that I wasn’t tempted to read another of his books until recently. It’s unfortunate that a dull literature teacher pushed me away from Hemingway because I suspect I would have liked A Farewell to Arms better if I had read it as a teenager.

A rapid reminder of the plot: We’re in Italy, in 1917. Frederic Henry is a young American who serves as a volunteer in the Italian army. He’s a lieutenant in the ambulance corps. When the book opens, he is stationed in Gorizia and the front is relatively calm. He meets Catherine Barkley who works as a nurse at the British hospital. They fall in love. When Henry is wounded, she manages to come to Milan where he is hospitalized and their relationship strengthens. He is sent back to the front where is he confronted to the absurdity of the war.

I know this is a cult book, Hemingway’s first best seller but I had difficulties with it.

The first difficulty was the style. I found it laboured and as I’m also reading Chandler, Hemingway’s style seemed even duller in comparison. When Hemingway describes Henry getting drunk by drinking several glasses of wine, Chandler makes Philip Marlowe say I remembered the half-bottle of Scotch I had left and went into executive session with it. And let’s not mention description like this:

The mountain that was beyond the valley and the hillside where the chestnut forest grew was captured and there were victories beyond the plain on the plateau to the south and we crossed the river in August and lived in a house in Gorizia that had a fountain and many thick shady trees in a walled garden and a isteria vine purple on the side of the house.

I wished he had let go of the English grammar and put a string of commas instead. Sure, he has his moments like I had drunk much wine and afterward coffee and Strega and I explained, winefully, how we did not do the things we wanted to do; we never did such things. But in other times, his style sounded so flat that my imagination played tricks on me. When I read It was really very large and beautiful and there were fine trees in the grounds I imagined a teenager working on an essay, bent over a school bench, biting her bottom lip, writing diligently, every t crossed and every i with a little ring on it. Very distracting.

However, I enjoyed the Italian atmosphere and the use of Italian words in the English to enforce our perception of Henry’s environment. The Italian spoke a strange English sometimes and I found this passage about British realities explained to a continental rather funny. Rinaldi, an Italian surgeon and Henry call on two nurses, Miss Barkley and Miss Ferguson.

[Rinaldi] “That is not good. You love England?” [Ferguson] “Not too well. I’m Scotch, you see.” Rinaldi looked at me blankly. “She’s Scotch, so she loves Scotland better than England,” I said in Italian. “But Scotland is England.” I translated this for Miss Ferguson. “Pas encore,” said Miss Ferguson. “Not really?” “Never. We do not like the English.” “Not like the English? Not like Miss Barkley?” “Oh, that’s different. You mustn’t take everything so literally.”

 The second difficulty was the love story. I didn’t buy it at all. Hemingway is good at describing war but romance isn’t his forte. See this dialogue:

“It’s raining hard.”

“And you’ll always love me, won’t you?”

“Yes.”

“And the rain won’t make any difference?”

“No.”

“That’s good. Because I’m afraid of the rain.”

“Why?” I was sleepy. Outside the rain was falling steadily.

“I don’t know, darling. I’ve always been afraid of the rain.”

“I like it.”

“I like to walk in it. But it’s very hard on loving.”

“I’ll love you always.”

“I’ll love you in the rain and in the snow and in the hail and—what else is there?”

“I don’t know. I guess I’m sleepy.”

“Go to sleep, darling, and I’ll love you no matter how it is.”

Terribly sappy and meteorological. It came as a surprise because corny isn’t the first adjective that came to my mind when I thought about Hemingway. Perhaps I would have found it romantic at 15, but not today. I just found it ridiculous. I haven’t decided yet if my fifteen-year-old self was silly or if I need to worry about being so cynical now. Despite all their professions of love, I didn’t find them convincing.

For me, the best parts were the descriptions of the front, of the atmosphere between the soldiers and the discussions about the necessity and the outcome of the war. I had never read a novel about WWI in Italy, so it was interesting to have a vision on that part of the battle field. I was intrigued to read that the German army was more dreaded than the Austrian. The war in the mountains was also something different from the one in France.

To be honest, what bothered me is that I didn’t like the characters. Henry is no hero despite his voluntary involvement in the war. He was foolish enough to get mixed into this fight when he didn’t need to. When he’s with his unit, he’s all about fighting with the Italians. But when he gets tired of the war, he finds it convenient to pull out his American passport and stay safely in Switzerland. Sorry but it didn’t seem fair for the poor Italian fellows who wanted out but couldn’t. In addition, he isn’t really on speaking terms with his family but is fine with cashing the money they send. That’s a bit easy too in my book. Catherine is rather boring but brave enough to break free of propriety to go after what she wants, ie Henry. She’s ready to disregard social rules to live with him out of marriage and it means a lot at this time. She has a back bone, she just doesn’t talk like she has one. (Back to Hemingway’s ability with love dialogues)

So all in all, what do I think about A Farewell to Arms? I’d say “Read it when you’re young”. Perhaps I missed something in Hemingway’s style -after all, English isn’t my native language– but I wasn’t blown away by it. I still want to read A Moveable Feast though. I assume that most of the English speaking readers who will read this billet have read this novel. What do you think about it? I’m genuinely curious.

A PS with spoilers: I know that A Farewell to Arms means A Farewell to Weapons or to War, because in French it is translated into L’adieu aux armes. It makes senses since Henry deserts the army and turns his back to arms. But, after reading the ending, it is also a farewell to Catherine’s arms and I suddenly found it odd that arm can mean both gun and members used to hug, hold and cuddle. In French, we have different words.

Zola’s take on stock exchanges

May 5, 2013 30 comments

L’Argent by Emile Zola. 1891 The English translation I used for the quotes is by Vizetelly.

L’Argent was our Book Club choice for April (I know, I’m late) and we all loved it.

Et la Bourse, grise et morne, se détachait, dans la mélancolie de la catastrophe, qui, depuis un mois, la laissait déserte, ouverte aux quatre vents du ciel, pareille à une halle qu’une disette a vidée. C’était l’épidémie fatale, périodique, dont les ravages balayent le marché tous les dix à quinze ans, les vendredis noirs, ainsi qu’on les nomme, semant le sol de décombres. Il faut des années pour que la confiance renaisse, pour que les grandes maisons de banque se reconstruisent, jusqu’au jour où, la passion du jeu ravivée peu à peu, flambant et recommençant l’aventure, amène une nouvelle crise, effondre tout, dans un nouveau désastre. And against this cloud the Bourse stood out grey and gloomy in the melancholiness born of the catastrophe which, for a month past, had left it deserted, open to the four winds of heaven, like some market which famine has emptied. Once again had the inevitable, periodical epidemic come—the epidemic which sweeps through it every ten or fifteen years—the Black Fridays, as the speculators say, which strew the soil with ruins. Years are needed for confidence to be restored, for the great financial houses to be built up anew, and time goes slowly by until the passion for gambling, gradually reviving, flames up once more and repeats the adventure, when there comes another crisis, and the downfall of everything in a fresh disaster.

I promise Zola wrote this and not a contemporary journalist. It’s a quote from Money, one of the last books of the Rougon-Macquart series. It was published in 1891, just before La Débâcle.

In this volume, we are in 1864 and we find Aristide Saccard again, one of the main characters of La Curée (The Kill). My post about The Kill was entitled Hunting high and low for money, pleasure or power. Well, Aristide Saccard hasn’t changed much. At the beginning of the novel, he is defeated, living rather poorly in an apartment in the hotel of the Princess D’Orviedo. She inherited a colossal fortune from her dead husband who didn’t earn it honestly. She’s expiating his faults by using his money for charities. Saccard works for one of her charity, the Institute of Work and runs it rather well. In the same hotel live a brother and a sister, M. Hamelin and Madame Caroline. They are also impoverished and try to make ends meet. Hamelin is an engineer and when he describes to Saccard all the great projects he could be starting in Asia Minor, Saccard sees an opportunity to start a new business, a bank. The three friends discuss the projects and Saccard relies on Hamelin’s ideas to promote his new company and new way of earning money.

Basically, the book relates the rise and fall of the Banque Universelle, created by Saccard with financial partners. It shows the madness of the stock exchange, the way people are corrupted by money easily earned on betting on the right stock and selling them at the right time.

The strength of the novel is the large net of secondary characters who serve one purpose: to show all kinds of unhealthy relationships with money and prove how it can turn honest people into despicable beings. All the characters in Money are involved with money at a level or another.

The main one is Saccard who appears like a megalomaniac, enjoys money for itself, for the power it gives him. He’s addicted to money. He’s full of energy, is afraid of nothing, is busy inventing scheme after scheme to reach his goal. At some point, he seems crazy. At the same time, you can’t despise him totally because he is hard working, full of enthusiasm but his ideas of grandeur are totally disproportionate. He has an appetite for life, for power and for all kinds of pleasures. Zola compared him to Napoleon: a man with lethal ideas or projects beyond imagination, someone who is a real leader, adored by people and at the same time leading his troops to death and desolation.  Saccard is shown as a Napoleonic businessman. Zola describes his fall with lots of military comparisons and they enforce the image of Saccard as a Napoleon of finance.

Les cours, de chute en chute, tombèrent à 1 500, à 1 200, à 900. Il n’y avait plus d’acheteurs, la plaine restait rase, jonchée de cadavres.  The quotations, from fall to fall, dropped to one thousand five hundred, one thousand two hundred, nine hundred francs. There were no more buyers ; none were left standing ; the ground was strewn with corpses.

When I read the French original, I cannot help thinking about Hugo’s poem L’Expiation about the battle of Waterloo. (Waterloo ! Waterloo ! Waterloo ! morne plaine !

Along with Saccard’s business, Zola portrays the business circles in Paris and especially the ones gravitating around the stock exchange, la Bourse. He describes the development of a new type of capitalism around banks and Sociétés Anonymes (Plc or AG). He depicts the workings of the Bourse, the behavior of investors, the optimists, the pessimists, the ones for who silence is gold. Zola shows the reader how enriched bourgeois, using impoverished nobility for their name are the new masters of the Bourse. He details rotten business practices, the manipulation of stock value and how people make money out of speculation. He always compares it to gambling.

The side characters are vivid too and Zola uses them to show how the madness of speculation, of easy money that corrupts people. It’s Dejoie, who buys stocks of the Banque Universelle to earn the 6000 francs he needs to pay for his daughter’s dowry. When the stock exchange price rises, he could sell and get his 6000 francs but he wants more. It’s the Maugendres who disowned their daughter because she married a poor writer and who’d rather play on the stock market than help her financially. It’s women who use prostitution to earn more.

Aside from the Bourse, Zola portrays the dirty market of bad debts and of devaluated stocks. Busch is our man and here is his business:

Mais, outre l’usure et tout un commerce caché sur les bijoux et les pierres précieuses, il s’occupait particulièrement de l’achat des créances. C’était là ce qui emplissait son cabinet à en faire craquer les murs, ce qui le lançait dans Paris, aux quatre coins, flairant, guettant, avec des intelligences dans tous les mondes. Dès qu’il apprenait une faillite, il accourait, rôdait autour du syndic, finissait par acheter tout ce dont on ne pouvait rien tirer de bon immédiatement. Il surveillait les études de notaire, attendait les ouvertures de successions difficiles, assistait aux adjudications des créances désespérées. Lui-même publiait des annonces, attirait les créanciers impatients qui aimaient mieux toucher quelques sous tout de suite que de courir le risque de poursuivre leurs débiteurs. Et, de ces sources multiples, du papier arrivait, de véritables hottées, le tas sans cesse accru d’un chiffonnier de la dette : billets impayés, traités inexécutés, reconnaissances restées vaines, engagements non tenus. Puis, là-dedans, commençait le triage, le coup de fourchette dans cet arlequin gâté, ce qui demandait un flair spécial, très délicat. Dans cette mer de créanciers disparus ou insolvables, il fallait faire un choix, pour ne pas trop éparpiller son effort. En principe, il professait que toute créance, même la plus compromise, peut redevenir bonne, et il avait une série de dossiers admirablement classés, auxquels correspondait un répertoire des noms, qu’il relisait de temps à autre, pour s’entretenir la mémoire. In addition also to usury and a secret traffic in jewels and precious stones, he particularly occupied himself with the purchase of ‘bad debts.’ This it was that filled his office with old paper to overflowing, this it was that sent him forth to the four corners of Paris, sniffing and watching, with connections in all circles of society. As soon as he heard of a failure, he hurried off, prowled around the liquidator, and ended by buying up everything which could not immediately be realised. He kept a watch on the notaries’ offices, looked out for inheritances difficult of settlement, and attended the ; sales of hopeless claims. He himself published advertisements, in this wise attracting impatient creditors who preferred to get a few coppers down rather than run the risk of prosecuting their debtors. And from all these manifold sources this chiffonnier of bad debts derived supply upon supply of paper, huge basketfuls, an ever-increasing pile of unpaid notes of hand, unfulfilled agreements, unredeemed acknowledgments !of liability, unkept engagements of every kind. Then a sorting-out became necessary, a fork had to be thrust into this mess of broken victuals, a special and very delicate scent being required in the operation. To avoid waste of effort, it was necessary to make a choice in this ocean of debtors, who were either insolvent or had disappeared. In principle, Busch asserted that every claim, even the most seemingly hopeless, may some day become valuable again ; and he had a series of portfolios, admirably classified, to which corresponded an index of names, which he read over from time to time to refresh his memory.

A charming profession, isn’t it? This man is merciless when he tracks down old debts and the additional expenses reach incredible amounts. I haven’t checked, but I bet these professionals really existed. This questions the access to credit: these debts were a way to have credit somewhere, when we basically rely on banks for this now.

Zola tries to balance his judgment. On the one hand, even evil characters have a good side. Busch is also a very kind brother attending to his ill relative like a mother hen. Saccard was perfectly honest when he ran the Institute of Work. On the other hand, the generous characters aren’t as good as it seems.  The Princess d’Orviedo gives her fortune away but the useless luxury she puts in her charities is to be criticized too. She gives her money away more for herself, because this money is dirty, than to really improve the beneficiaries’ life. She could do more if the investments were more efficient.

Madame Caroline is the only character who seems to keep her moral compass but she is also momentarily blinded by Saccard. He’s hard to resist. She’s seduced but can keep to her promises when she has decided something. She’s the only one who’s interested in life for itself and who has a healthy relationship with money. She enjoys it when she has some but wouldn’t give up her principles for more. If her income decreases, she adjusts her way of living.

Lots of elements in this novel were depressing because things haven’t changed that much since Zola. The behaviours he describes still exist. Crashes like Enron look a lot like the crash of the Banque Universelle and their outcome is alike with major consequences for shareholders and the whole market. Small people lose their fortune, but aren’t they responsible for stupidly believing that making so much money without doing anything was sustainable? If Money rings true, it’s because the foundation of all this is greed. The alternative is represented in the book by Busch’s brother Sigismond. He’s a thinker and an idealist who dreams of a Marxist society. Zola depicts him as a idealist. The society he dreams of cannot be implemented because it is based on the absence of greed and greed is part of the human nature. It’s doomed to failure.

Money also prepares the reader to La Débâcle. The political events mentioned here and there remind the reader that a war is in the air. The crash at the Bourse (a real one occurred in 1867, probably resulting in the new Corporate Law of July 24th, 1867) is described as a battle field and prefigures the agony of the regime.

Money is an excellent novel. I was really interested in the business and legal elements it includes and will come back to them in another entry. Highly recommended.

Discover Guy’s excellent take on this novel here.

Thinking patterns

May 1, 2013 19 comments

Sleeping patterns by J.R. Crook. 2012. Published by Legend Press. Not translated into French. (It would suit Les Editions de Minuit, though)

Crook_Sleeping_PatternsI rarely receive solicitations from writers or publishers to read their books and I don’t complain about it. Indeed, I’m not comfortable with the idea or the feeling of someone expecting a billet from me, and of course, a glowing one. Otherwise, why bother sending free copies of books? I don’t want to feel guilty about writing a negative billet. Of course, I’m not conceited enough to think that a negative billet on Book Around The Corner will ruin the book’s chance of success; I just think about the writers who put something about themselves for us to read and well, I suppose negative billets aren’t agreeable to read. So, when I received an email from J.R. Crook asking whether I’d like to read his book, I wanted to refuse right away. I decided to go and have a look at Litlove’s review of his novel, Sleeping Patterns. The review is entitled In praise of “Difficult books”. I thought “Ooh, not good.” I browsed through it and spotted a reference to experimental fiction and Roland Barthes and it made me cringe. “Definitely not good” was the next thought. I emailed the writer, warning him that I probably wasn’t the right reader for his book, having a hectic history of hit-and-miss with experimental fiction. But he was brave enough to send it anyway.

So Sleeping Patterns? I’m supposed to write a summary of the book and I won’t. It would ruin everything for someone who would want to read it. Let’s say it opens with an introduction by Annelie Strandli, a.k.a Grethe. She’s a character of the book and she explains that the author, J.R. Crook, is dead. She received Sleeping Patterns by the post, chapter after chapter. The table of contents lists chapters in the order Grethe received and read them, ie not in the chronological order of the events. I was intrigued.

I started to read, not knowing what to expect. The chapters are in a strange order, the characters pop in and out; most of the events happen in a residence for students in London. Their lives are intertwined and one of the characters is Jamie, the author of the novel. It reminded me of Short Cuts by Robert Altman and of Money by Martin Amis, because he’s also in the story as a writer. I was about to take a sheet of paper to write the names of the characters and map out the links between them but I stopped. I spend ten hours a day in an office, thinking rationally; there is no room for the irrational in my job, believe me. I was about to slip into my usual and well-experienced thinking pattern when I decided against it. I thought it would be healthy for me to give up the rational for a moment, to let myself be drifted by the book, catching what the writer wanted me to catch when I was reading a specific chapter, hoping that the confusion would dispel as I progressed in my reading. I was right.

I read Sleeping Patterns in one sitting, not able to put it down. I was in the perfect mood for it, the rain outside my windows mirroring the rain in the book. At a point, the novel questions our ability to daydream, an activity I enjoy but can rarely indulge in because I don’t have time for this, except when I’m on holiday. That’s why I love the beach. It’s a place where adults are authorized to lay down and daydream.

It’s a novella of about 110 pages and it’s the right length for it because reading it in one sitting is recommended. You don’t go out of the atmosphere and have to re-enter it after picking the book again. You have all the details in mind and it’s easier to reconcile the pieces of the jigsaw and see the interactions. There are multiple layers in the book but it’s not confusing as the story between Grethe and the aspiring writer Berry Walker remains the life-line of the narrative. You wander a bit, don’t go from point A to point B in a straight line but you remain on the main path.

I didn’t find Sleeping Patterns difficult to read or difficult to understand. I think that The Ravishing of Lol V Stein by Marguerite Duras is a lot more difficult to read than this. (Same thing for a more conventional narrative as The Line of Beauty by Hollinghurst.) After making a conscious decision to forget about the usual construction of a book, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The chapters felt like memories or flashbacks from dreams. After Proust, everyone knows that memories don’t come in chronological order or sorted in a logical or rational way. They come unexpectedly and dreams aren’t always consistent, are they?

I’m happy I decided to go past my initial wariness and that I gave this novella a chance. Changing of thinking pattern brought a bit of fresh air, I should do it more often. If I have a cheeky message for the author, it would be this one: Lots of people who read know nothing about literary criticism and theories. They just enjoy reading and appreciate a good style. Scaring them off with references to highbrow literature thinkers doesn’t do any justice to your book. Don’t burden your writing with these heavy shadows, it deserves better.

You can read an excellent review by Vishy here and another one by Andrew Blackman here.

%d bloggers like this: