Sunday 31 January 2021

On Othello, Emilia, and Iago

Lately I’ve been reading Macbeth and Othello

I haven’t blogged because what can I possibly say about Shakespeare that hasn’t been said over the past 400 years? Both are magnificent plays. 

The only thing I’d like to note is that the essays I’ve read about Othello tend to talk about Othello or Iago and neglect Emilia, who I think is a great character. For a large part of the play, she barely speaks and is mostly known as Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maid. There are a few moments when her worldliness is meant to contrast with Desdemona’s saintliness, like when Desdemona asks if she would cheat on her husband for all the world: 


Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?

EMILIA The world’s a huge thing; it is a great price for a small vice.


In troth, I think thou wouldst not.

EMILIA In troth, I think I should; and undo’t when I had done. Marry, I would not do such a thing for a joint ring, nor for measures of lawn, nor for gowns, petticoats, nor caps, nor any petty exhibition; but, for all the whole world - ’Ud’s pity! who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch? I should venture purgatory for’t.


Beshrew me if I would do such a wrong

For the whole world.

EMILIA Why, the wrong is but a wrong i’ th’ world; and having the world for your labor, ’tis a wrong in your own world, and you might quickly make it right.” 

(Act 4 scene 3) 

Desdemona is a saint, in her innocence and purity, whereas Emilia, up till the final scene, is an ordinary person, who steals, who rages, and who may commit adultery if the price is right. 

But look at her in the final scene. The passion! The rage! 

She has no fear of Othello.

“EMILIA Do thy worst. 

This deed of thine is no more worthy heaven 

Than thou wast worthy her.” 

(Act 5 scene 2) 

He wants her to be silent. 


Thou hast not half that power to do me harm

As I have to be hurt. O gull! O dolt! 

As ignorant as dirt! thou hast done a deed

I care not for thy sword; I’ll make thee known, 

Though I lost twenty lives…” 


What a line that is—“ Thou hast not half that power to do me harm/ As I have to be hurt”. 

In her love of Desdemona, Emilia is capable of a love no other character in the play is capable of. She screams of Desdemona’s murder and several people come in, including Iago. Everyone’s shocked at the brutal, senseless crime but everyone’s reaction pales next to Emilia’s passionate rage and intensity. 


With Cassio, mistress. Go to, charm your tongue.


I will not charm my tongue; I am bound to speak: 

My mistress here lies murdered in her bed 


EMILIA Villainy, villainy, villainy! 

I think upon’t - I think I smell’t! - O villainy! 

I thought so then. - I’ll kill myself for grief. - 

O villainy, villainy!


What, are you mad? I charge you get you home.


Good gentlemen, let me have leave to speak.

’Tis proper I obey him, but not now. 

Perchance, Iago, I will ne’er go home.” 


Many times Iago tells her to shut up, to go home, but she doesn’t stop. Nothing can stop her exposing both Othello and her husband, and defending the honour of her late mistress—not Othello’s sword, nor Iago’s threats. 

“EMILIA ’Twill out, ’twill out! I peace? 

No, I will speak as liberal as the north. 

Let heaven and men and devils, let them all, 

All, all, cry shame against me, yet I’ll speak.” 


From a seemingly very ordinary character, Emilia turns into one of the most heroic and tragic characters I have encountered. It is a powerful scene. Emilia’s love of Desdemona and rage at the injustice, the senselessness of it all give her a strength Iago has not expected and has not calculated. 

And that is the problem with Iago—some people think of Iago as an intelligent villain, a criminal mastermind, even the central character of Othello, and in a way it’s true that he sets everything up and manipulates everyone in the play, but at the core he is a small, base, and pathetic villain driven by hatred and resentment. He reduces everything to something small and base, reducing love to lust and women to whores, because his mind is incapable of anything higher, greater. He delights in poisoning people’s vision and derives pleasure from transforming men into beasts, and (mostly) succeeds in bringing Othello down to his low level, but he has not calculated that Emilia, with her love of Desdemona and knowledge of the handkerchief, would turn against him and expose his schemes. In his smallness, he has not expected Emilia’s great courage. 

What a magnificent play. 

Monday 25 January 2021

Thérèse Raquin: fire, the ghost, art, Madame Raquin

1/ This is the wedding night of Laurent and Thérèse. There is a fire: 

“A bright fire was blazing in the grate, casting large patches of yellow light that danced on the ceiling and the walls, so that the room was lit by a bright, flickering light in which the lamp, standing on a table, paled by comparison.” (Ch.21) 

Poor Madame Raquin has decorated and perfumed the room for the young couple—everything looks warm and smells nice. 

Here is Zola being a painter: 

“In her lace-trimmed petticoat and bodice, she was a harsh white against the burning light of the fire.” (ibid.) 

They have waited for this moment for so long—they have killed a man to be together, and have waited for nearly 2 years to get married without suspicion. But now that they’re together, something doesn’t work. Other readers would talk about their psychology, guilt, etc., I’m interested in the fire. 

“She looked up at Laurent, whose face at that moment was lit up by a broad, reddish glow from the fire. She looked at this blood-stained face and shuddered.” (ibid.) 


“They stayed there in silence, not moving, for five long minutes. From time to time, a reddish flame would spurt out of the wood and reflections, the colour of blood, played over the murderers’ faces.” (ibid.) 

Laurent, in an attempt to soothe Thérèse, mentions that Camille is now gone, which feels like a blow in the stomach for her. With the name uttered, the murderers look at each other, shaking. 

“The yellow light from the fire was still flickering on the walls and ceiling…” (ibid.) 

Yellow, red, red, yellow. That’s an interesting play with colours. 

But the ghost has been raised, and appeared between the couple. 

“Thérèse and Laurent could sense the cold, damp smell of the drowned man in the hot air that they breathed.” (ibid.) 

Such a lifelike ghost—(most) people in Hollywood films can’t see ghosts, here you can even smell it. Zola goes even further later on: 

“…they would see it lying like a greenish, rotten lump of meat and they would breathe in the repulsive odour of this heap of human decay.” (Ch.22)

Ugh that’s gross. 

They can see and smell and feel the ghost.

“They locked into a frightful embrace. […] Yet they could still feel Camille’s shredded flesh, foully squeezed between them, freezing their skin in places, even while the rest of their bodies was burning.” (Ch.23) 

How on earth is this meant to be scientific? How is this Naturalism? 

But then Zola seems to suggest that the ghost isn’t there—the murderers just have the same image, the same thoughts, the same hallucinations. 

“She looked at Laurent’s neck. She had just noticed a pink patch on the white skin. A rush of blood to his head made the patch larger and coloured it a fiery red.” (Ch.21)  

That, Laurent has to admit, is where Camille bit him nearly 2 years ago in the boat. I won’t write about what happens next, but clearly the key to enjoy Thérèse Raquin is to ignore everything Zola says, to read it not as a realistic novel but as something else. 

2/ The scene of the painting in chapter 21 made me laugh, though I assume it’s meant to be dark and sinister, at least not comic. Imagine being an aspiring painter and feeling terror upon seeing your own work. I wouldn’t pick up the brush again. 

3/ I like that Laurent and Thérèse are first attracted by their different temperaments (opposites attract, as people say). I also like that Laurent and Thérèse are tormented by guilt, loathing, and self-loathing, and cannot be happy together. But Zola isn’t content with describing it, he has to appear and turn it into something higher and explain it by “science”: 

“Thérèse’s dry, nervous character had reacted in an odd way with the stolid, sanguine character of Laurent. Previously, in the days of their passion, this contrast in temperament had made this man and woman into a powerfully linked couple by establishing a sort of balance between them and, so to speak, complementing their organisms. […] But the equilibrium had been disturbed and Thérèse’s over-excited nerves had taken control. Suddenly, Laurent found himself plunged into a state of nervous erethism; under the influence of her fervent nature, his own temperament had gradually become that of a girl suffering from an acute neurosis. It would be interesting to study the changes that are sometimes produced in certain organisms as a result of particular circumstances…” (Ch.22)

Look, Monsieur Zola, here is someone who has killed a man and is now beginning to realise the enormity of what he’s done, especially now that he’s in the room of the man he has murdered, with the wife of the dead man, watched by their cat and by the dead man’s painting. Psychologically their behaviours make sense, but for Zola that isn’t enough.  

“Then, he underwent a strange internal process: his nerves developed and came to dominate the sanguine element in him, this fact by itself changing his character.” (ibid.) 

The author insists that it isn’t guilt, even though it looks like guilt to me: 

“His remorse was purely physical. Only his body, his tense nerves and his trembling flesh were afraid of the drowned man. His conscience played no part in his terror: he did not in the slightest regret having killed Camille.” (ibid.) 

4/ Thérèse Raquin can be divided into 2 parts: the first part (up till the murder) mostly focuses on Thérèse, the eponymous character; whilst the second part is about both Thérèse and Laurent, but Zola seems to write more about him.  

Personally I think Thérèse is more interesting. First of all, she’s not wholly bad or purely motivated by self-interest like Laurent, and in her mind, she’s been wronged by the Raquins—for years she had to suppress her passionate nature, had to take medication she didn’t need, and felt pressured to marry the cousin she didn’t care for. 

Then after the murder, the two of them feel bound to each other, bound by the crime, but gradually she’s both afraid of and disgusted by Laurent, which makes perfect sense psychologically because she has seen him murder a man—her husband, his close friend—before her eyes and she has seen him lie unembarrassedly to others in front of her. Such a man is capable of anything. 

In her, there’s a combination of guilt, loathing, fear, disgust, self-hatred. Zola doesn’t need ideas about temperaments to explain her feelings and behaviours. 

Thérèse becomes even more fascinating as a character when there’s a new turn later on. 

5/ The untalented painter in Thérèse Raquin all of a sudden becomes a true artist, thanks to killing a man. No, really.

“Since he’d killed a man, it was as though his flesh had become lighter, his brain, distraught, seemed immense to him, and in this sudden expansion of his ideas he saw exquisite creations and poetic reveries. This is why his hand had suddenly acquired its distinction and his works their beauty, in a moment becoming personal and alive.” (Ch.25) 


“Perhaps Laurent had become an artist as he had become lazy, after the great disruption that had unbalanced his mind and his body. Previously, he had been stifled by the heavy weight of his blood and blinded by the thick vapour of health surrounding him.” (ibid.) 

This is absolutely nuts. But it leads to a powerful and haunting scene of Lauren and the sketches. I can imagine it working very well on screen. 

6/ The power of Thérèse Raquin is, I think, in the character of Madame Raquin. Whilst other characters are all brutes, selfish and hypocritical, she alone feels the depth of grief, she alone feels the depth of despair. 

For a large part of the novel, Zola does seem to put in all kinds of shocking and extreme things for the sake of being shocking and extreme, especially in the depiction of Laurent, who becomes increasingly more brutal and animalistic throughout the course of the story, and the portrayal of the other characters isn’t much better—they are all animals, motivated by self-interest. Madame Raquin, despite her egotism, is different because of her love for her son.   

It’s in similar to the way Flaubert gives Charles Bovary depth of feeling—if every single character in a novel were shallow, egoistic, and devoid of deep feeling, the book as a whole would be a minor work, however well-written. 

Thursday 21 January 2021

Thérèse Raquin: “a psychological and physiological fact that often occurs between those who are thrown violently together by great nervous shocks”

1/ In the previous blog post, I wrote about smells in the novel and the way Thérèse and Laurent are driven by the physical, by scents. 

In the second half of the novel, there are different kinds of smells. 

This is the scene at the morgue. After the murder of Camille, Laurent forces himself to go to the morgue every day, before work, to look at the bodies and look for Camille’s. 

“When he went in, he was sickened by a stale smell, a smell of washed flesh, and cold draughts blew across his skin. His clothes hung against his shoulders, as though weighed down by the humidity of the walls.” (Ch.13) 

The translation is by Robin Buss. 

I can see why people found, and still find, Zola shocking—he doesn’t hold back—just look at his description of the corpses. 


“He shook off his fears, called himself a child and tried to be strong, but in spite of that his flesh rebelled, and feelings of disgust and horror seized him as soon as he came into the humidity and the stale smell of the hall.

When there were no drowned men on the last row of slabs, he breathed more easily and felt less disgust.” (ibid.) 

What a scene. It is terrifying. This is one of the most striking, unforgettable chapters in the novel, especially when Zola goes from describing the corpses in graphic detail to writing coldly about the people who come in like they come to a show, commenting on or sniggering at the dead bodies. 

This is the moment after Laurent sees Camille’s body. 

“He felt as though a pungent odour were following him around, the odour that this putrefying corpse must be giving off.” (ibid.) 

2/ The characters in Thérèse Raquin are utterly compelling and feel real—not in the sense of being lifelike and multifaceted like Tolstoy’s or Cao Xueqin’s characters, but in the sense that they feel perfectly real within their world, like the characters in Wuthering Heights

Up till some time after the murder. 

After the murder, of course Thérèse would change and I can see her open up and no longer feel wrapped up in bad thoughts, but I’m not quite sure about these lines from Zola: 

“She subscribed to a lending library and became passionately fond of all the heroes of the stories that she read. This sudden love of reading had a considerable influence on her temperament. She acquired a nervous sensibility which made her laugh or cry for no reason. The equilibrium that had started to be achieved inside her was shattered. She fell into a sort of vague reverie.” (Ch.16) 

How do I put it, I think I take his characters more seriously than I take his “science”, his theory of the different temperaments being thrown together. 

3/ 15 months after the murder, Laurent also changes, or rather, he has a rush of fear and series of nightmares the night after Thérèse asks him to marry her. I try to tell myself that it’s some kind of delayed reaction, that the awareness of what he’s done only sinks into him now, but somehow to me it doesn’t quite work—his sudden terror in the dark alleyway after the meeting, his obsessive fear and paranoia when he gets home and checks everything, his repeated nightmares that night… all seem a bit… odd? A bit unnatural? 

“He tried to sleep once again. There followed a succession of sensual drowsings and sudden, agonized awakenings. In his furious obstinacy, he kept on going towards Thérèse and kept on coming up against Camille’s corpse. More than ten times […]. His desire was not lessened by this same sinister ending that woke him up every time; a few minutes later, as soon as he went back to sleep, his desire forgot the ghastly corpse that awaited him, and hurried once more to find the lithe, warm body of a woman. For an hour, Laurent lived through this series of nightmares, this bad dream constantly repeated, continually unforeseen, which, at every shocked awakening, left him shattered by an ever sharper sense of terror.” (Ch.17) 

I understand, in theory, that Thérèse’s talk of marriage forces him to confront the fact that he has killed a man, but the sudden excessiveness of it all seems a bit strange. 

See the moment when Laurent looks at his neck where he was bitten by Camille right before death: 

“The scar was light pink. As Laurent was making out his victim’s tooth marks, he felt quite moved by it and the blood rushed to his head. It was then that he noticed something odd. The scar was turned purple by the rising flow; it became bright and blood-filled, standing out red against the plump white neck. At the same time, Laurent felt sharp pricks, as though someone were sticking pins into the wound.” (ibid.) 

I thought this was meant to be scientific? That’s what Zola wrote in the Preface. See Tom’s blog post about the “science” of the book

The next day Laurent goes to work, fighting his sleepiness after a night of nightmares and insomnia. After work he comes to see Thérèse—she too has had nightmares and insomnia, she too has been haunted by the image of Camille.    

Zola writes more about it: 

“… Like Laurent, she had twisted around in a frenzy of desire and horror and, like him, told herself that she would no longer be afraid, no longer experience such suffering, when she held her lover between her arms.

At the same moment, this man and this woman had felt a kind of failing of the nerves, which brought them back, gasping and terrified, to their terrible love. An affinity of blood and lust had been established between them. They shuddered the same shudders, and their hearts, in a sort of agonizing fellowship, ached with the same terror. From then on, they had only one body and one soul to feel pleasure and pain. This community, this mutual interpenetration, is a psychological and physiological fact that often occurs between those who are thrown violently together by great nervous shocks.” (Ch.18) 

That looks like mumbo-jumbo to me. It works better if I just read it as a supernatural element—both characters get a visit from the ghost of the dead man. 

Zola explains further: 

“In the mental collapse that followed the acute crisis of the murder, in the feelings of disgust and the need for calm and forgetting that came after that, the two prisoners could imagine that they were free and that no iron link bound them together. The chain lay slack on the ground, while they rested, stricken with a kind of happy stupor, and tried to find love elsewhere, to lead sensibly balanced lives. But on the day when circumstances drove them once more to exchange words of desire, the chain suddenly tightened and they experienced such a shock that they felt attached to one another for ever.” (ibid.) 

This seems not to be guilt, but something else. But what is it? I have no idea. As Thérèse and Laurent wait and try to plant the idea of their marriage in the acquaintances’ heads so they don’t have to say it themselves, the nightmares return every night.  

Let’s go back to Zola’s statement at the beginning, where he defends his book against the critics who fail to understand what he’s doing: 

“The reader will have started, I hope, to understand that my aim has been above all scientific. When I created my two protagonists, Thérèse and Laurent, I chose to set myself certain problems and to solve them […] showing the profound disturbance of a sanguine nature when it comes into contact with a nervous one. […] In a word, I wanted only one thing: given a powerful man and a dissatisfied woman, to search out the beast in them, and nothing but the beast, plunge them into a violent drama and meticulously note the feelings and actions of these two beings. I have merely performed on two living bodies the analytical work that surgeons carry out on dead ones.” (Preface) 

Clearly I’m missing something, because I can’t take that seriously at all. If we go back to chapter 13 for example, which is disgusting and very disturbing, I think it’s a great chapter and Laurent’s reaction upon seeing Camille’s corpse makes perfect sense. I mean it seems natural. I don’t quite understand the logic, the psychology of chapters 17 and 18.  

4/ The passages about the mother’s grief are poignant: 

“The poor mother realized that she alone kept the memory of her dear child alive in the depths of her being. She wept and felt as though Camille had just died a second time.” (Ch.19) 

After 2 chapters of horror and melodrama, chapter 19 is an excellent one, coolly describing the play-acting of the murderers and their manipulation of Madame Raquin and their acquaintance Michaud. Especially good, I think, is Thérèse’s reaction to the effrontery, the bare-faced lie of her lover.  

Perhaps some readers will tell me what I’m missing and how I’m reading it wrong. 

Tuesday 19 January 2021

Thérèse Raquin: smell motif, Madame Bovary, the cat

1/ This is my first Zola. 

Thérèse Raquin, like Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet, begins with a detailed description of the surroundings. Place them side by side with the 20th century Japanese books I read last year (Soseki, Kawabata, Tanizaki, etc.)—it’s funny to see how detailed and specific the French are, and how vague and hazy the Japanese tend to be. 

2/ I picked up the novel knowing that it’s about a woman having an affair and plotting with the lover to kill the husband, but didn’t know about the marriage. I can’t be the only one grossed out by it: they are first cousins! They’ve grown up together since she’s 2! Ew. 

That’s my first wtf moment in the book.  

3/ The writing is good. 

“All these faces drove her crazy. […] And Thérèse could not see a single human, not a living creature, among these grotesque and sinister beings with whom she was shut up. At times she would suffer hallucinations, thinking that she was buried in a vault together with mechanical bodies whose heads moved and whose arms and legs waved when their strings were pulled. The heavy atmosphere of the dining room stifled her, and the eerie silence and yellowish glow of the lamp filled her with a vague sense of terror, an inexpressible feeling of anxiety.” (Ch.4)  

I like that. 

Thérèse is not Emma Bovary, but these lines make me think of Emma’s ennui. I’m reading the Penguin edition, translated by Robin Buss, which includes Zola’s preface for the 2nd edition. His goal is to study temperament, not character, and he says: 

“Thérèse and Laurent are human animals, nothing more.” (Preface)

What animal is Thérèse? A cat, I assume.

“This convalescent life that was imposed on her drove her back into herself. She became accustomed to speaking in a low voice, walking along quietly, and staying silent and motionless on a chair, looking blankly with wide-open eyes. Yet, when she did raise an arm or take a step, there was a feline suppleness in her, a mass of energy and passion dormant within her torpid frame.” (Ch.2) 

The comparison is repeated later: 

“He was no longer his own master; his mistress, with her feline sinuosity and nervous flexibility, had gradually insinuated herself into every fibre of his body. He needed that woman to live as one needs to eat and drink.” (Ch.9) 

There is a tabby cat in the novel that she often plays with, called Francois.

4/ Here is Laurent, the lover: 

“Laurent amazed her: he was tall, strong and fresh-faced. She looked with a kind of awe at his low forehead with its rough black hair, at his plump cheeks, his red lips and his regular features with their sanguine beauty. Her gaze paused for a moment on his neck, a broad, short neck, thick and powerful. […] Laurent came of true peasant stock, with a somewhat heavy manner, rounded back, slow, studied movements and a calm, stubborn look about him.” (Ch.5) 

Excuse me for being shallow but that doesn’t sound hot, though I can see that his qualities contrast with the illness and languor of the husband (Camille). 

The stories of Laurent’s studies makes me think of K in Kokoro—did Soseki ever read Zola? I wonder.  

5/ The characters, Zola says, are no more than human animals. Here’s something I’ve noticed: smells.  

This is Thérèse as perceived by Laurent, when he goes into the bedroom for their rendezvous: 

“She exuded a warm smell, a smell of white linen and freshly washed flesh.” (Ch.7) 

The first time Thérèse meets Laurent:

“The young man’s sanguine nature, his resonant voice, his hearty laughter and the sharp, strong smells that he emitted disturbed the young woman and plunged her into a kind of nervous anxiety.” (Ch.5)  

Contrast that with the smell from Camille when he was a kid, according to Thérèse: 

“‘…I was brought up in the damp warmth of a sickroom. I used to sleep beside Camille; in the night, I would move away from him, disgusted by the musty smell of his body.’” (Ch.7)  

He’s still the same now. 

“‘… And I found a husband who was no different from the ailing little boy I used to sleep with when I was six. He was just as frail, as whining, and he still had that smell of a sick child that used to disgust me so much in the old days.’” (ibid.) 

Now look again at the passage about Laurent. Their affair is purely physical. 

See this passage in Madame Bovary, about Emma and Rodolphe at the agricultural show: 

“His arms were folded across his knees, and thus lifting his face towards Emma, close by her, he looked fixedly at her. She noticed in his eyes small golden lines radiating from black pupils; she even smelt the perfume of the pomade that made his hair glossy.

Then a faintness came over her; she recalled the Viscount who had waltzed with her at Vaubyessard, and his beard exhaled like this air an odour of vanilla and citron, and mechanically she half-closed her eyes the better to breathe it in. […] yet all the time she was conscious of the scent of Rodolphe’s head by her side. This sweetness of sensation pierced through her old desires, and these, like grains of sand under a gust of wind, eddied to and fro in the subtle breath of the perfume which suffused her soul. She opened wide her nostrils several times to drink in the freshness of the ivy round the capitals...” (Ch.8) 

The translation is by Eleanor Marx-Aveling. 

This is also about smells and their affair is also physical (though Emma likes to think herself a romantic), but the smell Flaubert writes about is the perfume of the pomade, whereas Zola seems to be writing about Laurent’s natural odour. 

Compared to Emma Bovary, Thérèse seems to be, how do I say it, less cultured and more animalistic. If Emma is morally corrupted by reading, Thérèse never reads. Zola’s book seems to be in conversation with Flaubert’s. Thérèse and Emma have a few similarities. Both of them hate their husbands. Both of them hate their lives, their surroundings. Both of them haven’t had good sex till the affairs. Laurent’s thoughts, as he wonders whether to pursue Thérèse, remind me of Rodolphe’s. 

However Thérèse makes Emma Bovary appear so much better: Emma at least has the decency to go out of the house to cheat on her husband, among other things. 

6/ While the humans are like brutes, the cat is like a human. In this scene, Thérèse is with her lover in the bedroom of her and her husband, and the cat is watching. 

“The tabby cat, François, was sitting on his bottom right in the middle of the room. Solemn and motionless, he was looking at the two lovers with wide-open eyes. He seemed to be examining them carefully, without blinking, lost in a sort of diabolical trance.” (Ch.7) 

Does Tolstoy ever write about cats? I remember him writing about dogs and horses but can’t remember any cats.  

Thérèse jokes about the cat watching everything and talking to Camille.

“Laurent looked at the cat’s large green eyes and felt a shudder run through him.” (ibid.) 

Then he picks him up and puts him outside the room. What a great scene. 

7/ Zola writes about smells again, when Laurent’s contemplating murder. 

“He felt suffocated in this narrow cage, which Thérèse had left full of the heat of her passion. He seemed to be still breathing something of her, she had been there, leaving behind a pervasive scent of herself, a smell of violets; but now all he had to press in his arms was his mistress’s intangible ghost, present all around him; he was in a fever of reviving, unsatisfied desire.” (Ch.9) 

The animal in him now takes over. In him now there’s no conscience, no morality, no sense. 

“Driven by insomnia, aroused by the pungent scents that Thérèse had left behind, he devised traps, working out what could go wrong and enumerating all the benefits to be derived from becoming a murderer.” (ibid.) 

He’s driven by the physical, by the smell.

“He grasped the material between his dry lips and drank in the faint scents still clinging to it; and he stayed there, breathless, panting, watching strips of fire cross his closed eyelids.” (ibid.) 

Later, in Saint-Ouen: 

“The bitter scent of the earth mingled with the light perfume of Thérèse and seeped into him, heating his blood and arousing his lust.” (Ch.11) 

I expect that smells will still be significant in the later part of the novel. 

Sunday 17 January 2021

On Eugénie Grandet, or my problems with Balzac

Spoiler alert: I usually don’t put up a spoiler alert even though I spoil everything, but Eugénie Grandet has an interesting plot and I will discuss significant plot points that you may not want to know, including the ending. 

1/ Eugénie Grandet, if you don’t know the book, is about the daughter of the richest man in Saumur, who happens to be a miser. There are 2 families in town competing for Eugénie, because of her inheritance—Eugénie doesn’t know because she’s not aware of how rich her family is, Monsieu Grandet knows they’re after his money but keeps hanging out with them in order to squeeze money out of them. Everyone in town watches and gossips and speculates about which family will get Eugénie, but everything takes a new turn when one day her handsome cousin Charles from Paris crashes her 23th birthday party. 

Check out this line.   

““Dear Eugenie, a cousin is better than a brother, for he can marry you,” said Charles.” (Ch.9) 


2/ Do I become grumpier and more irritable over time? I wonder. Or is it still Hong lou meng hangover? I mean, look at this passage about first love in Eugénie Grandet

“Eugenie took delight in lulling her cousin’s pain with the pretty childish joys of a new-born love. Are there no sweet similitudes between the birth of love and the birth of life? Do we not rock the babe with gentle songs and softest glances? Do we not tell it marvellous tales of the golden future? Hope herself, does she not spread her radiant wings above its head? Does it not shed, with infant fickleness, its tears of sorrow and its tears of joy? Does it not fret for trifles, cry for the pretty pebbles with which to build its shifting palaces, for the flowers forgotten as soon as plucked? Is it not eager to grasp the coming time, to spring forward into life? Love is our second transformation...” (ibid.)  

I cut that short—Balzac went on a bit more. I don’t doubt that her feeling is genuine, but I can’t get out of my head the thought that this is love at first sight, she barely knows the guy. I can’t take it very seriously.  

However I like this, which is said by Nanon the ugly servant: 

““If I had a man for myself I’d—I’d follow him to hell, yes, I’d exterminate myself for him; but I’ve none. I shall die and never know what life is…”” (ibid.) 

That’s a moving moment that may almost be corny, but so far Nanon has been nothing but a simple, faithful, and accepting servant, a cliché of a character—this line suggests that there’s something more. 

Later on, Nanon also secretly disobeys her master when he punishes Eugénie, though I’m not going to get ecstatic and praise the “realism” of the character after seeing the wide range of servants depicted in Hong lou meng.

3/ Balzac has sympathy for women: 

“In all situations women have more cause for suffering than men, and they suffer more. Man has strength and the power of exercising it; he acts, moves, thinks, occupies himself; he looks ahead, and sees consolation in the future. It was thus with Charles. But the woman stays at home; she is always face to face with the grief from which nothing distracts her; she goes down to the depths of the abyss which yawns before her, measures it, and often fills it with her tears and prayers. Thus did Eugenie. She initiated herself into her destiny. To feel, to love, to suffer, to devote herself,—is not this the sum of woman’s life?” (Ch.9) 

Such a good passage. 

This, of course, is about the 19th century. Now there are plenty of things for women to do to distract themselves. 

However, I’m getting rather fed up with all the stuff about moral qualities and love and sadness improving the beauty of the female characters. 

“From that day the beauty of Mademoiselle Grandet took a new character. The solemn thoughts of love which slowly filled her soul, and the dignity of the woman beloved, gave to her features an illumination such as painters render by a halo. Before the coming of her cousin, Eugenie might be compared to the Virgin before the conception; after he had gone, she was like the Virgin Mother,—she had given birth to love. These two Marys so different, so well represented by Spanish art, embody one of those shining symbols with which Christianity abounds.” (ibid.) 

Later on: 

“…answered the old notary respectfully, struck with the beauty which seclusion, melancholy, and love had stamped upon her face.” (Ch.11) 

Come on. 

Her mother also becomes more beautiful: 

“…his angel of gentleness, whose ugliness day by day decreased, driven out by the ineffable expression of moral qualities which shone upon her face. She was all soul. The spirit of prayer seemed to purify her and refine those homely features and make them luminous. Who has not seen the phenomenon of a like transfiguration on sacred faces where the habits of the soul have triumphed over the plainest features, giving them that spiritual illumination whose light comes from the purity and nobility of the inward thought?...” (ibid.) 

This is the way Balzac describes her at the beginning:

“Madame Grandet was a dry, thin woman, as yellow as a quince, awkward, slow, one of those women who are born to be down-trodden. She had big bones, a big nose, a big forehead, big eyes, and presented at first sight a vague resemblance to those mealy fruits that have neither savor nor succulence. Her teeth were black and few in number, her mouth was wrinkled, her chin long and pointed.” (Ch.2) 

Her yellow skin is mentioned several times throughout the novel. Now go back and look at the “angel of gentleness” passage again. 

Do you like those passages? I don’t, but can’t quite explain why I find them irritating. Balzac’s better at describing the house.  

4/ The miser is hard—his daughter’s suffering doesn’t bother him, his wife’s illness doesn’t concern him, the only thing that can soften him is the fear of losing his wife’s estate to the daughter. The only thing that holds any meaning for him is money. 

Eugénie does change through the course of the story, (almost) like James’s Catherine Sloper—love and belief in herself give her the strength to stand up against her father, for the first time in her life. But at the same time I can’t help thinking, is Balzac not one-sided in reinforcing the miser’s hardness and unreasonableness over and over again, and siding with Eugénie in the matter of gold? Of course it is her gold and she can do whatever she wants with it, but is it wise to give away all of it when she herself isn’t aware of how rich she is and that’s all she thinks she has? In Washington Square, Dr Sloper may be unkind to Catherine but he isn’t wrong about Morris Townsend and isn’t wrong about expressing his concern. 

Monsieur Grandet remains consistently himself all the way to the end. Once in a while he feels a bit bad, (almost) like he has a conscience, and there is one moment when he feels torn between remaining where he is and coming to hug his daughter but the feeling doesn’t last long. He thinks like a miser, talks like a miser, and acts like a miser—there is no complexity, no more depth to him, and he has that monomania, that pointless obsession with gold till the last moment. He is defined by a single trait, a single obsession. 

5/ There is a mistake in the book: in the first chapter, the narrator says that in 1806, Monsieur Grandet is 57 (his wife is 36 and Eugénie is 10). 

Now in chapter 12, the narrator says Monsieur Grandet is 82 in the year 1827, when he should be 78. 

6/ Nobody told me that Charles went to the Indies and became a slave trader! 

“Crossing the line had brushed a good many cobwebs out of his brain; he perceived that the best means of attaining fortune in tropical regions, as well as in Europe, was to buy and sell men. He went to the coast of Africa and bought Negroes, combining his traffic in human flesh with that of other merchandise equally advantageous to his interests.” (Ch.13) 

Fucking hell. I didn’t expect that. 

Balzac expands: 

“He sold Chinamen, Negroes, birds’ nests, children, artists; he practised usury on a large scale; the habit of defrauding custom-houses soon made him less scrupulous about the rights of his fellow men.” (ibid.) 

I don’t mean that I didn’t expect Charles to do it because of what I thought about him, I mean that I didn’t expect Balzac to write it in his novel. 

This passage is interesting: 

“By dint of jostling with men, travelling through many lands, and studying a variety of conflicting customs, his ideas had been modified and had become sceptical. He ceased to have fixed principles of right and wrong, for he saw what was called a crime in one country lauded as a virtue in another. In the perpetual struggle of selfish interests his heart grew cold, then contracted, and then dried up. The blood of the Grandets did not fail of its destiny; Charles became hard, and eager for prey.” (ibid.) 

That’s good.

Charles’s letter to Eugénie at the end is, I think, excellent. Cold, frank. I won’t put it here—you have to read it for yourself.  

7/ After the letter, which is written so well, Balzac throws this in my face: 

“Some women when they see themselves abandoned will try to tear their lover from the arms of a rival, they will kill her, and rush to the ends of the earth,—to the scaffold, to their tomb. That, no doubt, is fine; the motive of the crime is a great passion, which awes even human justice. Other women bow their heads and suffer in silence; they go their way dying, resigned, weeping, forgiving, praying, and recollecting, till they draw their last breath. This is love,—true love, the love of angels, the proud love which lives upon its anguish and dies of it. Such was Eugenie’s love after she had read that dreadful letter.” (ibid.) 

I’m sorry but what kind of bullshit is this? 

Throughout the novel, Balzac’s intrusive narrator keeps making generalisations about women—women this, women that…, which I find nonsensical and utterly annoying. This is even more annoying because it comes right after the letter, which is excellent. 

Remember that Eugénie falls in love with Charles at first sight and knows him for 3 days—3 days! She barely knows him, and more importantly, the Charles she knows is not him in his normal environment, but him in exceptional circumstances, staying in her house instead of living in Paris, and facing the shock of grief and loss of fortune at the same time. 7 years have passed, and I’m expected to think that this is true love and “the love of angels”? 

I understand that women in the past had confined lives, but I don’t think that I’m imposing modern standards on a 19th century novel. I’m sure that Jane Austen would have laughed at it, considering her views on first impressions and love at first sight. 

It is one thing to portray Eugénie as she is, it’s a different thing for the intrusive narrator to express that view. 

8/ The ending is thought-provoking, I can see why many readers love it. In a way she changes—she becomes hardened and turns part of herself off. But in a way she doesn’t—she is still a Grandet, her lifestyle remains exactly the same as when her father’s alive, and she puts on a mask before the world, just like her father. 

I think Henry James got the inspiration from Balzac’s novel and wrote a greater book. Apart from characters’ complexity, I think the difference is in vision. In Washington Square, Catherine becomes hardened and disillusioned as she comes to understand, and see through, the 2 men that mean the most to her—her own father despises her and the man she loves only wants her money. She doesn’t give in to them and in the end has her triumph—a triumph that has nothing to do with happiness, but it’s about dignity and self-respect. 

In other words, it is specifically about 2 individuals—Dr Sloper and Morris Townsend. 

This is Balzac’s vision: 

“She has the noblest qualities of sorrow, the saintliness of one who has never soiled her soul by contact with the world…” (Ch.14) 

His view, as we hear from the narrator over and over again throughout the novel, is that society is full of corruptions and calculations, everyone is scheming, dishonest, and full of flattery, and the only noble people are those who have no contact with the world and don’t understand its calculations and customs, such as Eugénie, her mother, or Nanon.   

In the end, having lost her illusions, Eugénie turns off a part of herself, rejects the world as a whole, and becomes a miser with her feelings. Everyone is dishonest, everyone is calculating, the only one who cares about her is Nanon. 

I don’t accept that vision of life. 

Friday 15 January 2021

Eugénie Grandet: writing, Washington Square, money

1/ I like the house descriptions in Eugénie Grandet

“When Charles saw the yellow, smoke-stained walls of the well of the staircase, where each worm-eaten step shook under the heavy foot-fall of his uncle, his expectations began to sober more and more. He fancied himself in a hen-roost. […]

“Why the devil did my father send me to such a place?” he said to himself.

When they reached the first landing he saw three doors painted in Etruscan red and without casings,—doors sunk in the dusty walls and provided with iron bars, which in fact were bolts, each ending with the pattern of a flame, as did both ends of the long sheath of the lock.” (Ch.3) 

Charles is the handsome nephew from Paris—nephew of Monsieur Grandet and cousin of Eugénie. He crashes Eugénie’s birthday party, to everyone’s surprise. 

Now check out the old man’s office, which nobody is allowed to enter: 

“… there, no doubt, while Nanon’s loud snoring shook the rafters, while the wolf-dog watched and yawned in the courtyard, while Madame and Mademoiselle Grandet were quietly sleeping, came the old cooper to cuddle, to con over, to caress and clutch and clasp his gold. The walls were thick, the screens sure. He alone had the key of this laboratory, where—so people declared—he studied the maps on which his fruit-trees were marked, and calculated his profits to a vine, and almost to a twig.” (ibid.) 

What an image. 

Now look at the room poor Charles is going to sleep in. 

“Charles stood aghast in the midst of his trunks. After casting his eyes on the attic-walls covered with that yellow paper sprinkled with bouquets so well known in dance-houses, on the fireplace of ribbed stone whose very look was chilling, on the chairs of yellow wood with varnished cane seats that seemed to have more than the usual four angles, on the open night-table capacious enough to hold a small sergeant-at-arms, on the meagre bit of rag-carpet beside the bed, on the tester whose cloth valance shook as if, devoured by moths, it was about to fall, he turned gravely to la Grande Nanon…” (ibid.) 

Such a nightmare for a dandy Parisian. 

2/ The birthday scene is good—at first the des Grassins and the Crouchots are rivals, both going after Eugénie, i.e. the money, then they’re interrupted by the unexpected arrival of the handsome cousin from Paris and they now form a temporary alliance against the common enemy. The premise of Eugénie Grandet makes me think of Washington Square (I’m aware that Henry James sees Balzac as his master) and I liked Washington Square a lot, but Balzac’s novel now “exposes” a fault with James’s novel: the fact that Morris Townsend is the only one courting and pursuing Catherine Sloper, considering how rich she is. I know the point is the battle of minds between him and Dr Sloper, and then between the 2 men, Catherine, and the aunt, but still… 

3/ The titular character isn’t described till chapter 4, after the house and after everyone else, even the handsome cousin. Eugénie, now infatuated with the cousin, is looking at herself in the mirror and judging her own looks; the description however is Balzac’s—it is Eugénie as seen by her creator, not as seen by herself.

Balzac mentions “softer Christian sentiment”, “love and kindness”, etc. and she has a well-curved bust, but the main point still is that our poor Eugénie isn’t good-looking: enormous head, “masculine yet delicate forehead”, grey eyes, thick nose, round throat, etc. I mean: 

“Eugenie, tall and strongly made, had none of the prettiness which pleases the masses; but she was beautiful with a beauty which the spirit recognizes, and none but artists truly love.” (Ch.4) 

It’s meant to be complimentary but isn’t that flattering, is it? 

I don’t have much to say about the passages about Eugénie falling in love (all the stuff about “virgin modesty” and “happiness” and “angelic nature” blah blah blah get on my nerves a bit and I’m not really a fan of stories about love at first sight), but this is interesting:  

“Perceiving for the first time the cold nakedness of her father’s house, the poor girl felt a sort of rage that she could not put it in harmony with her cousin’s elegance. She felt the need of doing something for him,—what, she did not know.” (ibid.) 

I like that. 

The thing that interests me more than Eugénie’s change, which is natural and expected because of her youth and sheltered life, is that Nanon the servant also changes though she’s still afraid of the master. Charles has an effect on her too. 

SPOILER ALERT: For the rest of the blog post, I will discuss some significant plot points that those of you who haven’t read the book may not want to know.    

4/ Chapter 5 has a marvellous breakfast scene of the morning after the birthday: first Eugénie, now head over heels in love, takes advantage of her father’s absence to make “a feast” for her cousin, with bread, eggs, butter, and so on; then the cousin comes down asking for “anything, it doesn’t matter what, a chicken, a partridge” and the poor girl realises how meagre, how pathetic the meal she has prepared is; the scene is marvellous, the young Parisian and his country relatives unable to understand each other; then the man of the house comes home, to everyone’s panic and Charles’s amazement at their reaction…

What a vivid, lively scene. 

5/ See the moment the miser has to break the news to his nephew: 

“Grandet was not at all troubled at having to tell Charles of the death of his father; but he did feel a sort of compassion in knowing him to be without a penny…” (Ch.5) 


““The first burst must have its way,” said Grandet […] “But that young man is good for nothing; his head is more taken up with the dead than with his money.”

Eugenie shuddered as she heard her father’s comment on the most sacred of all griefs. From that moment she began to judge him.” (ibid.) 

That’s a significant moment—Eugénie is starting to see her father more clearly and starting to rebel, the way Catherine Sloper does. 

I can’t help thinking that Balzac’s characters are types and can be summed up in one word or one phrase: Monsieur Grandet is the miser, Madame Grandet is the pious wife, Nanon is the faithful servant, Charles is the dandy, Eugénie is the sheltered daughter, etc. The characters in Eugénie Grandet can also be roughly divided into 2 groups: those who are obsessed with money and those who aren’t. Another way of categorising them is selfish people and selfless ones, but the plot of Eugénie Grandet is driven by money and its main theme relates to money, and I expect that whatever Eugénie does will involve money, whether or not she personally cares about it. 

As a type, Monsieur Grandet is a striking study of a miser—he is a force of nature. I mean, he tells his servant to shoot some crows and make soup instead of getting meat from a butcher’s. He even cuts up sugar cubes! 

Here’s the man calculating and scheming. 

“There was in him, as in all misers, a persistent craving to play a commercial game with other men and win their money legally. To impose upon other people was to him a sign of power, a perpetual proof that he had won the right to despise those feeble beings who suffer themselves to be preyed upon in this world.” (Ch.6) 

When thinking about earning, he thinks in millions; when thinking about spending, he thinks in sous. 

That is interesting, and even more interesting if you remember that he is 70. That’s a lot of energy for a 70-year-old man (the year is 1819). 

6/ Out of curiosity, I did a few searches. In the Katharine Prescott Wormeley translation I’m reading (which is on Gutenberg), the word “money” appears 63 times, “gold” or “gold-pieces” 108 times, “francs” 113 times, “louis” 19 times. 

7/ Balzac is cynical: 

“…Charles was a true child of Paris, taught by the customs of society and by Annette herself to calculate everything; already an old man under the mask of youth. He had gone through the frightful education of social life, of that world where in one evening more crimes are committed in thought and speech than justice ever punishes at the assizes; where jests and clever sayings assassinate the noblest ideas; where no one is counted strong unless his mind sees clear: and to see clear in that world is to believe in nothing, neither in feelings, nor in men, nor even in events,—for events are falsified. There, to “see clear” we must weigh a friend’s purse daily, learn how to keep ourselves adroitly on the top of the wave, cautiously admire nothing, neither works of art nor glorious actions, and remember that self-interest is the mainspring of all things here below.” (Ch.8) 


And more: 

“Charles, so far, had had no occasion to apply the maxims of Parisian morality; up to this time he was still endowed with the beauty of inexperience. And yet, unknown to himself, he had been inoculated with selfishness. The germs of Parisian political economy, latent in his heart, would assuredly burst forth, sooner or later, whenever the careless spectator became an actor in the drama of real life.” (ibid.)

Contrasted with that is the angelic provincial girl: 

“To young girls religiously brought up, whose minds are ignorant and pure, all is love from the moment they set their feet within the enchanted regions of that passion. They walk there bathed in a celestial light shed from their own souls, which reflects its rays upon their lover; they color all with the flame of their own emotion and attribute to him their highest thoughts. A woman’s errors come almost always from her belief in good or her confidence in truth.” (ibid.) 

In all honesty, I’m not really a fan of these passages—I don’t go along with the idea that, except for those who are ignorant and pure, everyone in society has to believe in nothing, has to be false, hypocritical, and calculating, as though there’s nothing beyond it. 

8/ The childlike simplicity of Eugénie, which I assume is meant to be endearing, is getting on my nerves. 

East Asian literature 2020

2020 somehow became my year of East Asian literature and I’ve just realised that I forgot to put up a list of the works I read. Here it is: 

Vietnamese (included because Vietnam is culturally East Asian even though it is geographically Southeast Asian): 

- Nguyễn Du: Văn tế thập loại chúng sinh (Văn chiêu hồn), Truyện Kiều

- Đoàn Thị Điểm/ Phan Huy Ích: Chinh phụ ngâm (translated into verse in chữ Nôm from the original in chữ Hán by Đặng Trần Côn). 

- Nguyễn Gia Thiều: Cung oán ngâm khúc


- Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji (trans. Royall Tyler), The Diary of Lady Murasaki (trans. Richard Bowring).

- Sei Shonagon: The Pillow Book (trans. Meredith McKinney). 

- The daughter of Sugawara Takasue, also known as Lady Sarashina: Sarashina Nikki (retitled As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, trans. Ivan Morris).

- Natsume Soseki: Kokoro (trans. Meredith McKinney), Kusamakura (retitled The Three-Cornered World, trans. Alan Turney).

- Kawabata Yasunari: The Sound of the Mountain (trans. Edward. G. Seidensticker), Snow Country (trans. Edward. G. Seidensticker).

- Tanizaki Junichiro: Some Prefer Nettles (trans. Edward. G. Seidensticker), Naomi (trans. Anthony H. Chambers). 

- Akutagawa Ryunosuke : Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories (trans. Jay Rubin).

- Abe Kobo: The Woman in the Dunes (trans. E. L. Saunders). 


- Cao Xueqin: Hong lou meng, also known as Dream of the Red Chamber, A Dream of Red Mansions, or The Story of the Stone, and Hồng lâu mộng in Vietnamese (trans. Vũ Bội Hoàng group). 

In total: 4 long poems, a collection of short stories, 10 thin or average-sized books (not including the collection and Truyện Kiều), and 2 doorstoppers. 

All were newly discovered authors except for Nguyễn Du (because what Vietnamese person doesn’t grow up with Nguyễn Du?). 


Hong lou meng

The Tale of Genji

Truyện Kiều 


Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories

The Pillow Book 

Tuesday 12 January 2021

Eugénie Grandet: descriptions, character introduction

1/ This is my first Balzac. Tom at Wuthering Expectations calls it his favourite one.

The translation is by Katharine Prescott Wormeley. 

Look at the description of Monsieur Grandet, the father: 

“Physically, Grandet was a man five feet high, thick-set, square-built, with calves twelve inches in circumference, knotted knee-joints, and broad shoulders; his face was round, tanned, and pitted by the small-pox; his chin was straight, his lips had no curves, his teeth were white; his eyes had that calm, devouring expression which people attribute to the basilisk; his forehead, full of transverse wrinkles, was not without certain significant protuberances; his yellow-grayish hair was said to be silver and gold by certain young people who did not realize the impropriety of making a jest about Monsieur Grandet. His nose, thick at the end, bore a veined wen, which the common people said, not without reason, was full of malice. The whole countenance showed a dangerous cunning, an integrity without warmth, the egotism of a man long used to concentrate every feeling upon the enjoyments of avarice and upon the only human being who was anything whatever to him,—his daughter and sole heiress, Eugenie.” (Ch.1) 

Very clear. Straight to the point. One comparison (the basilisk). Very different from descriptions in Flaubert, say. 

Eugénie Grandet begins with a long, detailed description of the street and its houses before the narrator mentions the phrase “the house of Monsieur Grandet”, and adds: 

“It is impossible to understand the force of this provincial expression—the house of Monsieur Grandet—without giving the biography of Monsieur Grandet himself.” (ibid.) 

Balzac then writes about Monsieur Grandet—the biography and the man. Then chapter 2 describes the house, in detail. An abundance of detail. 

Why so much description? some readers might ask. He means to contrast the lives of the neighbours, many of whom depend heavily on the weather for their living, with the comfort and wealth of Monsieur Grandet. The house is an extension of the man. 

What do I see? I see the luxury, but also notice “cold, silent, pallid dwelling”, “some resemblance to the gateway of a jail”, “red with rust”, “yellow with age”, a figure that is now effaced, “sickly herbage”, “dirty shelves”, “tapestry representing the fables of La Fontaine; it was necessary, however, to know that writer well to guess at the subjects, for the faded colors and the figures, blurred by much darning, were difficult to distinguish”, etc. (Ch.2)  

That’s interesting. 

2/ The sketch of Monsieur Grandet is striking. What a miser. I want to know more. But I’m not so sure about the sketch of his servant Nanon, often called La Grande Nanon because of her stature and strength. Several times the narrator evokes a dog—she is blindly loyal like a dog and Monsieur Grandet loves her like one loves a dog. Look: 

“In the famous year of 1811, when the grapes were gathered with unheard-of difficulty, Grandet resolved to give Nanon his old watch,—the first present he had made her during twenty years of service. Though he turned over to her his old shoes (which fitted her), it is impossible to consider that quarterly benefit as a gift, for the shoes were always thoroughly worn-out. Necessity had made the poor girl so niggardly that Grandet had grown to love her as we love a dog, and Nanon had let him fasten a spiked collar round her throat, whose spikes no longer pricked her.” (ibid.) 

I mean, what? Perhaps I have certain expectations because of Cao Xueqin’s depiction of servants in Hong lou meng, but I have always disliked the simple, blindly loyal and forever grateful servant trope. 

“Though she received only sixty francs a year in wages, she was supposed to be one of the richest serving-women in Saumur. […] Every servant in the town, seeing that the poor sexagenarian was sure of bread for her old age, was jealous of her, and never thought of the hard slavery through which it had been won.” (ibid.) 

These lines are, I think, enough. But Balzac goes further:  

“To the poor peasant who in her youth had earned nothing but harsh treatment, to the pauper girl picked up by charity, Grandet’s ambiguous laugh was like a sunbeam. Moreover, Nanon’s simple heart and narrow head could hold only one feeling and one idea. For thirty-five years she had never ceased to see herself standing before the wood-yard of Monsieur Grandet, ragged and barefooted, and to hear him say: “What do you want, young one?” Her gratitude was ever new. Sometimes Grandet, reflecting that the poor creature had never heard a flattering word […] Grandet, struck with pity, would say as he looked at her, “Poor Nanon!” […] Such compassion arising in the heart of the miser, and accepted gratefully by the old spinster, had something inconceivably horrible about it. This cruel pity, recalling, as it did, a thousand pleasures to the heart of the old cooper, was for Nanon the sum total of happiness.” (ibid.) 

Even if I accept Nanon the way I accept (and like) the caricatures in the world of Dickens (who feel utterly real in their world), personally I don’t like the “had something inconceivably horrible about it” part. 

However, it’s too early to say. Maybe she’ll change and do something interesting. 

3/ So what do we have? A very, very rich man—richest man in town (Saumur). A daughter, who would be an heiress. That makes me think of Washington Square, though this seems to be a very different book—the father here is nothing like Dr Austin Sloper, except for the wealth and the coldness. 

In chapter 2, our Eugénie turns 23 in 1819. 

I calculate that her mother is now 49 and her father is 70. That is rather old, no? Especially in 1819. Too old to continue amassing so much money without spending—what’s the point when you can’t bring money with you when you die? 

The miserliness of Monsieur Grandet makes me think of Ebenezer Scrooge—I see you’re wondering, Eugénie Grandet was published 10 years before A Christmas Carol

As Balzac introduces Madame Grandet and continues sketching the Monsieur, I’m starting to think that each character would be defined by a single trait: Monsieur Grandet economises in everything, even movement; Nanon the servant is loyal like a dog; Madame Grandet gives her husband a fortune but barely gets anything out of it but doesn’t ask because of her “foolish secret pride” and “nobility of soul” (Ch.2), etc. 

The one I expect to become more interesting is Eugénie. 

4/ Let’s look at the scene of Eugénie’s birthday—the des Grassins and the Crouchots are here, competing for Eugénie: 

“…this laughter, accompanied by the whirr of Nanon’s spinning-wheel, sincere only upon the lips of Eugenie or her mother; this triviality mingled with important interests; this young girl, who, like certain birds made victims of the price put upon them, was now lured and trapped by proofs of friendship of which she was the dupe,—all these things contributed to make the scene a melancholy comedy. Is it not, moreover, a drama of all times and all places, though here brought down to its simplest expression? The figure of Grandet, playing his own game with the false friendship of the two families and getting enormous profits from it, dominates the scene and throws light upon it. The modern god,—the only god in whom faith is preserved,—money, is here, in all its power, manifested in a single countenance.” (ibid.) 

This is the obsession with money in Balzac’s novels that people have told me about. I can’t help thinking, though, is it not too clear, too obvious what Balzac thinks about his characters and how he views things?

My guess is that the novel will be less about the titular character than about her father, and less about who she will marry than about the father’s pointless obsession with money. Let’s see.  

Sunday 10 January 2021

How to Be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery

Why did I pick up The Soul of an Octopus? I must have read about it somewhere. It’s a wonderful, deeply affecting book, and it introduced me to Sy Montgomery, so lately I’ve been reading her book How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals

She was a weird kid.

“An only child, I never yearned for siblings. I didn’t need other kids around. Most children were loud and wiggly. They wouldn’t stay still long enough to watch a bumblebee. They ran and scattered the pigeons strutting on the sidewalk.

With rare exceptions, adult humans were not particularly memorable either. I would stare blankly at an adult I had seen many times, unable to place them, unless one of my parents could remind me of their pet.” (Ch.1) 

Sy Montgomery has the gift to understand animals, to communicate with them, to feel a closeness to them. I don’t. Apart from a turtle my grandma got when I was a kid, which didn’t live that long, I’ve never really had a pet because my family have always lived in apartments and we couldn’t have pets. My boyfriend and I don’t have pets now either, though his grandparents and my stepfather have cats and I play with them when I visit. But that’s all, so I do envy Sy Montgomery’s gift for understanding animals and I love the way she writes about them—with a sense of wonder and an infectious enthusiasm and lots of love. She sees each animal as an individual, with a personality, with likes and dislikes, with a soul. 

For example, look at this passage about emus: 

“I could easily tell them apart. One had a long scar on his right leg. I named him Knackered Leg. (Knackered is Australian slang I’d learned from a zookeeper. It means “messed up” and is more impolite than I then realized.) His injury might have been the reason he sat down most often of the three. Black Head seemed to be the most forward emu of the group, and took the lead most often. It was surely he who approached us straight on during my second meeting with them. Bald Throat had a whitish patch on his throat where the black feathers were sparse. He seemed skittish. When the wind would blow or a car would approach, he’d be the first to run.

[…] I knew, though, that they were not quite adult, because they lacked the turquoise neck patches that adorn the mature birds. And they were surely siblings, having left their father’s care (the male incubates the greenish-black eggs and takes care of the up to twenty chicks who hatch) only weeks or months earlier. Like me, they were just starting to explore their world.

What do they do all day? I wondered.” (Ch.2) 

She makes me curious too: what do they do all day? 

Emus are strange, fascinating birds. I’ve heard that Luis Bunuel liked emus, which is why he put them in The Phantom of Liberty. I didn’t know till I read this book that emus had 2 different sitting positions.  

Now look at this passage, about the emus: 

“They also had a sense of humor. One day I watched them approach the ranger’s dog, tied on a chain outside his house. The dog barked hysterically, but bold Black Head, head and shoulders raised high, continued approaching the straining animal head-on. Once Black Head was within twenty feet, he raised his wing stumps forward, hurled his neck upward, and leapt into the air with both feet kicking, repeating the behavior for perhaps forty seconds. Soon the other two joined him, and the dog went absolutely wild. The emus then raced off across the dog’s line of vision for about three hundred yards, before sitting down abruptly to preen—as if to congratulate themselves on the success of their prank.” (ibid.) 

Is that not fascinating? 

Sy Montgomery and her husband adopted a baby pig, called Christopher Hogwood (named after the conductor). This passage is about the pig and their little neighbours Kate and Jane, who were 10 and 7 respectively: 

“Kate and Jane also instituted Pig Spa. One spring day, Kate decided that the long ringlet of hair at the tip of Christopher’s tail needed to be combed. Then, of course, it needed to be braided. Inevitably for two preteen girls whose house was littered with hair scrunchies and smelled like bubble bath, the effort expanded to an entire beauty regimen for our pig.

We fetched warm buckets of soapy water from the kitchen, and more warm water for the rinse. We added products created for horses to apply to his hooves to make them shine. Grunting his contentment as he lay in his pool of soapy water, Christopher made clear he adored his spa—unless the water was chilly. Then he’d scream like he was being butchered—and we’d race back to the kitchen to fetch a more comfortable bath. He forgave us the instant the warm water touched his skin.” (Ch.3) 

Each chapter of the book is dedicated to an animal that has changed her life and what lessons they have taught her. Chapter 3 is particularly interesting because, while writing about the pig, Sy Montgomery also writes about her parents and the differences that broke their relationship. The differences between her and her pig do not matter—they love each other.  

This is the concluding passage in the chapter: 

“Chris loved his food. He loved the feel of the warm, soapy water of Pig Spa, the caress of little hands on the soft skin behind his ears. He loved company. No matter who you were—a child or an adult, sick or well, bold or shy, or whether you held out a watermelon rind or a chocolate donut or an empty hand to rub behind his ear—Christopher welcomed you with grunts of good cheer. No wonder everyone adored him.

Studying at the cloven feet of this porcine Buddha every day, I could not help but learn from a master how to revel in and savor this world’s abundance: the glow of warm sun on skin, the joy of playing with children. Also, his big heart, and huge body, made my sorrows seem smaller. After a lifetime of moving, Christopher Hogwood helped give me a home. And after my parents had disowned me, out of an assortment of unrelated, unmarried people and animals of many different species, Christopher helped create for me a real family—a family made not from genes, not from blood, but from love.” (ibid.) 

This is a delightful, heartwarming book. She writes well, and she can change the way you think. About a decade before How to be a Good Creature, she wrote a book about her pig, called The Good Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood

In the same chapter about Chris, Sy Montgomery also writes about their dog Tess, a border collie who was abandoned several times and previously had an accident that took her nearly a year to recover from multiple surgeries.

“She was only two years old when we took her home from Evelyn’s, but Tess had already seen a lifetime of pain, loss, and rejection.” (ibid.) 

This passage is heartbreaking: 

“…except for when we were playing her favorite sports (which worked out to be about once an hour), Tess was as wary of people as Chris was outgoing. She didn’t pee, poop, or eat without our specifically asking her to do so. She consented to petting, but seemed confused about the point. She didn’t bark for weeks, as if she were afraid to use her voice in the house. The first time we invited her up on our bed she looked at us in shocked disbelief. When we patted the covers, obediently she jumped up, but leapt back down again a second later, as if this couldn’t possibly be what we wanted.

Tess seemed to be guarding her emotions. But we knew we could change that.” (ibid.) 

And they did. 

Later in chapter 6, she writes again about Tess—in more detail. This is a deeply moving chapter with some great passages but I won’t put them here—you should read the book yourself. It is a great chapter. She makes me love a dog I have never known. She makes me envy her relationship with Tess. 

In How to be a Good Creature, Sy Montgomery alternates between her pets and the wild animals she has met. In chapter 7, she writes about tree kangaroos, echidnas, pademelons… Then in chapter 8, she writes about another pet dog: Sally, another black and white border collie that she believes Tess sent to her in a dream.  

“Despite being the same breed, Sally and Tess were almost complete opposites. Tess was a graceful athlete. Sally knocked things over. Tess loved her Frisbee and tennis ball but disdained other toys. Sally, as it turned out, became crazy for toys—except for the Frisbee, which she would catch only grudgingly to please Howard…” (Ch.8) 

Different from The Soul of an Octopus, How to be a Good Creature is a lot more personal. When she writes about wild animals, including those in capture like the octopuses, there is a sense of wonder and a sense of exploration as she interacts with an animal with which humans are not very familiar, especially animals that lack facial expressions or have expressions that we can’t read. Chapter 4 for example is about her transformative encounter with a pinktoe tarantula in a rainforest—transformative because the experience opens her up to the world of spiders that she has never known before, because it forever changes her perception of the small spiders she sees at home. 

Her writings about the pets are different—she feeds them, plays with them, loves them, and sees them as family. 

“I felt whole again. Sally made me unspeakably happy. I loved the softness of her fur, the cornmeal-like scent of her paws, the rolling cadence of her gait, the gusto with which she ate (even the stick of butter softening for the dinner table and the bowl of cereal abandoned for a moment to take a phone call)…” (ibid.) 

The three of them (her, her husband Howard, and Sally) sleep together in the same bed. 

“… And if Howard got up at night, Sally would immediately and deliberately rearrange herself to take up his sleeping lane, with her head on his pillow. When he got back, she’d give him a puffy smile. She thought this was a hilarious joke. And so did we.” (ibid.) 

This too is a great chapter, and Sally sounds like an adorable dog. 

Overall, How to Be a Good Creature is a wonderful little book, a good book to read in these depressing times. What are you waiting for?