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Archive for the ‘arts and literature’ Category

Emile Zola 1860-1902

Read  Emile Zola’s biography and literary output in Wikipedia

The following is a passage in Zola’s Therese Raquin (1867):

…Laurent imposed on himself the task of passing each morning by the Morgue, on the way to his office. He had made up his mind to attend to the business himself. Notwithstanding that his heart rose with repugnance, notwithstanding the shudders that sometimes ran through his frame, for over a week he went and examined the countenance of all the drowned persons extended on the slabs.

While some retained their natural condition in the rigidity of death, others seemed like lumps of bleeding and decaying meat. At the back, against the wall, hung some lamentable rags, petticoats and trousers, puckered against the bare plaster. Laurent at first only caught sight of the wan ensemble of stones and walls, spotted with dabs of russet and black formed by the clothes and corpses. A melodious sound of running water broke the silence.

Little by little he distinguished the bodies, and went from one to the other. It was only the drowned that interested him. When several human forms were there, swollen and blued by the water, he looked at them eagerly, seeking to recognise Camille. Frequently, the flesh on the faces had gone away by strips, the bones had burst through the mellow skins, the visages were like lumps of boned, boiled beef. Laurent hesitated; he looked at the corpses, endeavouring to discover the lean body of his victim. But all the drowned were stout. He saw enormous stomachs, puffy thighs, and strong round arms. He did not know what to do. He stood there shuddering before those greenish-looking rags, which seemed like mocking him, with their horrible wrinkles.

One morning, he was seized with real terror. For some moments, he had been looking at a corpse, taken from the water, that was small in build and atrociously disfigured. The flesh of this drowned person was so soft and broken-up that the running water washing it, carried it away bit by bit. The jet falling on the face, bored a hole to the left of the nose. And, abruptly, the nose became flat, the lips were detached, showing the white teeth. The head of the drowned man burst out laughing…

When there were no drowned persons on the back row of slabs, he breathed at ease; his repugnance was not so great. He then became a simple spectator, who took strange pleasure in looking death by violence in the face, in its lugubriously fantastic and grotesque attitudes. This sight amused him, particularly when there were women there displaying their bare bosoms. These nudities, brutally exposed, bloodstained, and in places bored with holes, attracted and detained him.

Once he saw a young woman of twenty there, a child of the people, broad and strong, who seemed asleep on the stone. Her fresh, plump, white form displayed the most delicate softness of tint. She was half smiling, with her head slightly inclined on one side. Around her neck she had a black band, which gave her a sort of necklet of shadow. She was a girl who had hanged herself in a fit of love madness.

Each morning, while Laurent was there, he heard behind him the coming and going of the public who entered and left.

The morgue is a sight within reach of everybody, and one to which passers-by, rich and poor alike, treat themselves. The door stands open, and all are free to enter. There are admirers of the scene who go out of their way so as not to miss one of these performances of death. If the slabs have nothing on them, visitors leave the building disappointed, feeling as if they had been cheated, and murmuring between their teeth; but when they are fairly well occupied, people crowd in front of them and treat themselves to cheap emotions; they express horror, they joke, they applaud or whistle, as at the theatre, and withdraw satisfied, declaring the Morgue a success on that particular day.

Laurent soon got to know the public frequenting the place, that mixed and dissimilar public who pity and sneer in common. Workmen looked in on their way to their work, with a loaf of bread and tools under their arms. They considered death droll. Among them were comical companions of the workshops who elicited a smile from the onlookers by making witty remarks about the faces of each corpse. They styled those who had been burnt to death, coalmen; the hanged, the murdered, the drowned, the bodies that had been stabbed or crushed, excited their jeering vivacity, and their voices, which slightly trembled, stammered out comical sentences amid the shuddering silence of the hall.

There came persons of small independent means, old men who were thin and shrivelled-up, idlers who entered because they had nothing to do, and who looked at the bodies in a silly manner with the pouts of peaceful, delicate-minded men. Women were there in great numbers: young work-girls, all rosy, with white linen, and clean petticoats, who tripped along briskly from one end of the glazed partition to the other, opening great attentive eyes, as if they were before the dressed shop window of a linendraper. There were also women of the lower orders looking stupefied, and giving themselves lamentable airs; and well-dressed ladies, carelessly dragging their silk gowns along the floor.

On a certain occasion Laurent noticed one of the latter standing at a few paces from the glass, and pressing her cambric handkerchief to her nostrils. She wore a delicious grey silk skirt with a large black lace mantle; her face was covered by a veil, and her gloved hands seemed quite small and delicate. Around her hung a gentle perfume of violet.

She stood scrutinising a corpse. On a slab a few paces away, was stretched the body of a great, big fellow, a mason who had recently killed himself on the spot by falling from a scaffolding. He had a broad chest, large short muscles, and a white, well-nourished body; death had made a marble statue of him. The lady examined him, turned him round and weighed him, so to say, with her eyes. For a time, she seemed quite absorbed in the contemplation of this man. She raised a corner of her veil for one last look. Then she withdrew…

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James Tissot: Without a Dowry (1883)

James Tissot (1836 – 1902) was the story-teller of elegant Victorian life. Without a Dowry is one of Tissot’s fifteen paintings in a series called La Femme à Paris. The picture is also known as Sunday in the Luxembourg Garden. The Jardin de Luxembourg was a popular recreational area on the Left Bank protected from the undesirables by a tall forged-iron fence. Here one could rent a chair to enjoy fresh air in comfort. The chair rental is probably the only Sunday pleasure the two women in the painting can afford. Both the mother and the daughter are in mourning – one can guess that the father, probably a poorly-paid government clerk,  is gone and they are living on a small pension. Without a sufficient dowry, the young woman has no hope for a happy future. Maybe, just maybe, she will marry a widower with six children or an old man in need of a nurse. Until then, genteel poverty is her fate.

The marriage was a serious business in France and, as with all business, money was its essence.  The following text, written by Charles C. Fulton, was published in 1873:

The matrimonial agencies of Paris do a thriving business. They are located in all sections of the city, and are of different classes, according to the wealth and standing of the families of the parties they deal with — young men who are looking for a wife with a good dowry, the money consideration being the main incentive, and parents who have marriageable daughters, being the principal customers. The agents, when they effect a marriage, stipulate that they shall receive five per cent of the dowry, and generally manage also to get a good retaining-fee from both parties. The larger establishments are in correspondence with similar agencies on all parts of the continent, and have become a necessity to parents who are looking out for eligible wives for their sons and responsible husbands for their daughters. The successful tradesman who has accumulated a fortune desires his daughters to marry in a higher circle than that in which he associates: hence the necessity of an agent to make the necessary advances. Then elaborate papers must be prepared and signed before the marriage is consummated, and unless the dowry is paid down at the stipulated time the engagement is off. To manage all these preliminaries requires practical knowledge and experience which few parties in private life could be expected to possess.

The agency of Madame St. Just only does openly what hundreds of others have for ages been doing secretly, and she has at once risen to the head of the profession. She is one of those business geniuses who believe in advertising, and she is, of course, pushing aside all the old fogies who have transacted their business as if secrecy was necessary to all their movements. Madame St. Just says the French law of marriage, and the national custom, render matrimonial agencies a necessity, and in a recent trial the courts have sustained the position she has taken. No one under twenty-five years of age, either son or daughter, can marry without the consent of his or her parents, or, if the parents are dead, without the consent of the grandparents, if any are living. If none of them are living, applicants must substantiate the fact by bringing certificates of their death and burial.

Thus it will be seen that parents make all the arrangements for marriage, and, as they do not know who are the eligible parties in the matrimonial market, they must apply to those who make it a business to keep a record, with the pedigree and pecuniary standing or prospects, of all the young men and girls who are similarly eligible. If John Smith should have settled on his daughter a dowry of twenty thousand francs, he has a money interest in securing for her a husband similarly endowed, and he awaits the guarantee of a responsible agent that there is no false pretense being practiced upon him. How would he be able to ascertain that Tom Brown, who applied for the hand of Miss Smith, was all that he represented himself to be, and whether his father was responsible for the twenty thousand francs which he had promised to give his son on the morning of his marriage, or how would he know that there were twenty or thirty young men of good family and good money-standing who are anxious to secure a wife with the twenty-thousand-franc charm possessed by Miss Smith, if there were not an agent to apply to who kept a record of all such young-aspirants for matrimony? Or how would the parents of these young men know that there was such an eligible party as Miss Smith in existence, if they had not applied to Madame St. Just for the information?

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Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, photo by Nadar

The brothers Goncourt were to 19th century Paris what Samuel Pepys was to 17th century London. Inseparable since birth, never married, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt went through life as a single mind until the premature death of Jules in 1870. They co-authored six novels, but are remembered chiefly for their diaries beginning in 1851. At home in the literary circles as well as in high society, the brothers gathered local gossip and their biting comments are a delight to read. The entries are remarkably sincere and colourful, sparing no one including the authors. The journals end in 1896, the year of Edmond’s death at the age of 74. By the terms of his will, he endowed the Goncourt Academy which has been awarding yearly the prestigious Prix Goncourt for the best novel.

Quotes

Today I begin to understand what love must be, if it exists. When we are parted, we each feel the lack of the other half of ourselves. We are incomplete like a book in two volumes of which the first has been lost. That is what I imagine love to be: incompleteness in absence. Jules de Goncourt

Man is a mind betrayed, not served, by his organs. Edmond de Goncourt

***

Posts quoting The Goncourt Journals:

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