A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

What I'm Reading

L'Assommoir (The Dram Shop)
By Émile Zola 
Translated by Robin Buss 

I had never read any Zola, so I figured it was about time, and I've had this paperback sitting on my shelves for several years. Unfortunately, it took me several months to get through it, not because it's a difficult read but because I decided to launch my Proust Project and because I had a few review assignments that intervened. Not much time for other reading. 

Actually, it was fascinating to read Zola and Proust together. Proust is so internal, Zola so exterior. In fact, I wouldn't call L'Assommoir a novel so much as a docudrama. Zola's great strength is as a reporter. True, he creates good characters, but in this novel at any rate he's not so strong on plot -- it's pretty much the rise (not very high) and fall of a woman whose chief enemies are some ne'er-do-well men and their (and her) weakness for alcohol. That's why the title is L'Assommoir, which translator Robin Buss explains was "a slang word for a working-class bar, derived from the word assommer, 'to bludgeon, to stun' (referring to the effects of cheap spirits on the consumer)." His translation of the title, "The Dram Shop," isn't much help to the contemporary reader, who has probably never heard the phrase. If I were translating it, I might call it "The Gin Joint," or maybe "The Dive." (I discovered, when I went to find a link on Amazon, that Penguin Classics has reissued what seems to be the same translation under the title The Drinking Den. L'Assommoir has also been published as Gervaise, which should have been its title to start with. She, more than the "drinking den" itself, is the focal point of the novel. It was also filmed as Gervaise in 1956 under the direction of René Clement; Maria Schell played Gervaise.)

But as I said, Zola is a great reporter. His depictions of the working-class side of mid-19th-century Paris are fascinating: He takes us inside foundries and bars and laundries and shops with a meticulous eye for detail. Here's a bit from a  scene where Gervaise, the novel's central character, goes to wash her clothes: 
The wash-house was a vast shed with a flat roof, supported by visible beams on cast-iron pillars and enclosed by wide clear-glass windows, which admitted the pale daylight so that it could pass through the hot steam that hung like a milky mist. ... A heavy dampness rained down, laden with the smell of soap -- a moist, insipid, persistent smell, in which, from time to time, stronger whiffs of bleach would dominate. Along the washing-boards that lined both sides of the central aisle were rows of women, their arms naked to the shoulders, their necks bare and their skirts tucked in to reveal coloured stockings and heavy, laced-up shoes. They were beating fiercely, laughing, throwing their heads back to shout something through the din or leaning forward into their tubs, foul-mouthed, brutish, ungainly, soaked through, their flesh reddened and steaming. Around and underneath them, a great stream coursed by, coming from buckets of hot water carried along and tipped out in a single movement, or else from open taps of cold water pissing down, ... all running off in rivulets across the sloping stone floor from the ponds in which their feet paddled. And, in the midst of the cries, the rhythmical beating noises and the murmurous sound of rain -- the tempestuous clamour deadened by the damp roof -- the steam-engine, over to the right, completely whitened by a fine dew, panted and snored away unceasingly, its flywheel shivering and dancing, seeming to regulate this monstrous din.
It's all there, sights, sounds and smells. And this is only one of many such passages that give the feeling of life in a particular time and place. There's a wonderful description of a working-class outing in the Louvre, gawking at the works of art. And there are scenes of the most abject misery, including a harrowing account of a man in the throes of delirium tremens.

To return to Zola and Proust, the latter is the great master of portraying the middle classes and the aristocracy, while Zola's forte is the down-and-out class. Between the two you can probably get a pretty good sense of life in 19th-century France. There's nobody in English I can compare Zola to: L'Assommoir was published in 1877, and no one then in Great Britain or the United States was writing with the same clarity and candor about the real world. 

Poem of the Day: Hugo von Hofmannsthal

Manche freilich müssen drunten sterben, 
Many, to be sure, must die down there
Wo die schweren Ruder der Schiffe streifen, 
 where the heavy oars of the ship scrape,
Andre wohnen bei dem Steuer droben, 
Others dwell above at the helm
Kennen Vogelflug und die Länder der Sterne. 
and know the flight of birds and the realms of the stars.

Manche liegen immer mit schweren Gliedern
Many lie forever with heavy limbs
Bei den Wurzeln des verworrenen Lebens,
at the roots of obscure life,
Andern sind die Stühle gerichtet 
others have chairs placed for them
Bei den Sibyllen, den Königinnen, 
with the Sibyls, the queens, 
Und da sitzen sie wie zu Hause, 
and they sit there as if at home,
Leichten Hauptes und leichter Hände. 
with light heads and light hands.

Doch ein Schatten fällt von jenen Leben 
Still, a shadow falls from those other lives
In die anderen Leben hinüber,
across these lives, 
Und die leichten sind an die schweren 
and the light and the heavy
Wie an Luft und Erde gebunden: 
are bound together as to the air and the earth: 

Ganz vergessener Völker Müdigkeiten
The weariness of quite forgotten people
Kann ich nicht abtun von meinen Lidern,
I can't shut away with my eyelids
Noch weghalten von der erschrockenen Seele
nor hold off from my horrified soul
Stummes Niederfallen ferne Sterne.
the silent fall of distant stars.

Viele Geschicke weben neben dem meinen,
Many fates are woven next to my own,
Durcheinander spielt sie alle das Dasein,
existence mixes them all up together,
Und mein Teil is mehr als dieses Lebens
and my share is more than this life's
Schlanke Flamme oder schmale Leier.
slender flame or thin lyre.

--Hugo von Hofmannsthal

Hofmannsthal is now probably best known to opera buffs as the librettist for Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, Elektra and other opera. But he was a fine poet whose poems have a haunting melancholy about them, a kind of Austrian Weltschmerz. Even his librettos have something of this -- if you know the Strauss operas, think of the Marschallin's meditation on time and aging, Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding, and Ariadne's invocation of death, Es gibt ein Reich.