Wednesday, February 13, 2008

All Roads Lead to Paris

In today's mail was a large manila envelope. Inside, my handwritten final take-home exam, dated 1997, from Isabelle, a former professor of mine. When I had contacted her last month while researching the name of an illustration, she kindly offered to send me some old papers she'd found that I'd written for her 19th Century French Novel course.

Below is what I wrote about Paris in an answer to one of six "short-answer" questions. At first reading, I think, "Hmm, this is not bad, not bad at all," recalling the frantic panic of finals while being a full-time mother of two school-age kids. Then I re-read and criticize, "Ew, how embarrassing; it's too superficial; any French lycéen writing like this would flunk." Both points hold some truth.

Of course, in any exam there is a fine balance to find between explaining in depth and painting with a broad stroke -- strutting your stuff for the prof so she at least knows that you've actually read and digested the works. We had 24 hours for the take-home; we could use our books and a dictionary; we had to write one long essay and the six shorter answers. Surprisingly, this is my shortest of the shorts!

Memory is a curious, capricious faculty. I had largely forgotten the plots and characters of many of these novels. But by re-reading the decade-old essays, I time-traveled back to some inner part of my brain, to a time when I was living in a swirl of deep literary analysis, with intense ideas I was too often inept at articulating. By revisiting my thought process (rather than the works themselves), the characters and actions awoke for me.

P.S. I got a very generous A- for a course grade, so I can't complain. Merci, Isabelle!

P.P.S. A prize to anyone who can guess which work I read in the abridged version.

Finally, I'm posting this mostly for the perspective on Paris. Has Paris changed from the 19th to the 21st century? Time to reflect on that one...

Quel rôle joue Paris dans les romans que nous avons lus?

Paris joue le rôle d'un centre aimanté où règnent l'argent et le pouvoir dans certains romans. Chez Balzac, Paris est le carrefour -- une ville pleine d'activité, permettant des rencontres (et, donc, l'action) de tous ses personnages. C'est une ville passionnante et corrompue, avec son propre système social qu'il faut conquérir.

Dans L'Education sentimentale, par contre, Flaubert décrit un Paris ou il y a de nombreuses rencontres, mais l'un de ses rôles majeurs est d'être le lieu ou l'on trouve beaucoup d'objets, y compris Madame Arnoux. Paris est un lieu ou il y a des évènements, donc une impression de temps qui passe.

Il me semble que Paris est la maîtresse de Victor Hugo. Il adore chaque pierre, il la connaît par coeur. Paris, comme ville, donne une unité de lieu à l'action des Misérables.

Chez Sand, Paris représente un milieu hermétique et étouffant. C'est un lieu de richesse et d'oisiveté. Marcelle, tout au début, veut quitter Paris et le genre de vie à laquelle elle était astreinte. C'est en quittant Paris qu'elle peut trouver le parfum des arbres, l'eau, et la liberté.

Dans Germinal, Paris est le siège des dieux invisibles. On ne voit jamais la ville, mais les pouvoirs émanent d'elle. A Paris il y a le propriétaire de la Régie, le siège de l'Empire, et -- force opposée -- il y a Pluchart. Etienne reconnaît le source du pouvoir, et quitte Montsou pour Paris à la fin du roman.

You all got this, right? Just in case you missed a leetle word or two, now I translate for you...

What role does Paris play in the novels we have read?

In certain novels, Paris plays the role of a magnetic space ruled by power and money. For Balzac, Paris is a crossroads: a city full of criss-crossing activity, giving way to encounters (and hence, to the action) of all his characters. Paris is an enthralling and corrupt city, with its own social system which everyone must conquer.

By comparison, in Sentimental Education Flaubert describes a Paris where there are numerous encounters; but one of the major purposes of Paris is as a place where one finds many objects, including [the protagonist's object of desire] Madame Arnoux. Paris is a place where one event succeeds another, thus giving an impression of the passage of time.

Paris seems to be Victor Hugo's mistress. He adores each stone; he knows her by heart. Paris, as a city, provides the spatial unity to the action in Les Miserables.

For George Sand, Paris is a suffocating, hermetically closed environment. It is a place of idle wealth. From the begininng Marcelle wants to flee from Paris and the restrained life she experienced there. It is only by leaving Paris that she can revel in the fragrance of trees, flowing water, and freedom.

In Germinal, Paris is a center of invisible gods. We never see Paris, but power emanates from the city. Paris is where the company owner lives, the seat of the Empire and -- an opposing force -- there is Pluchart [a union organizer]. Etienne recognizes the source of power, and leaves his town of Montsou for Paris in the end.


anna said...

Was this for a Master's?

Polly-Vous Francais said...


oops - sorry -- I edited out that sentence. It was for a mid-career M.A., almost 20 years after I got my B.A. I always felt as though I should have Total Mastery, guilty that I was often pedalling as fast as I could just to keep up, especially with the writing.

Autolycus said...

You're lucky. I came across some essays I wrote as an undergraduate 40-odd years ago and didn't understand what on earth I was talking about.

maitresse said...

pas mal!

This is one of my favorite topics, and I'd love to teach a class on this.

I think you could take your analyse a bit further for L'Education Sentimentale and Les Misérables-- in terms of the heartbreaking power of the city in the first case, and its revolutionary potential in the second.

I like your ideas on Germinal, very interesting-- even though we don't see Paris, we feel it, intensely.

Polly-Vous Francais said...

I was glad to have my rusty memory oiled by the reading. I'm not so sure it would have worked for papers written 30 years ago!

Thanks- you're the pro! I also have a book called "Paris vu par les ecrivains" which goes by arrondissement, but doesn't go into depth. And I agree, I could have gone into greater depth on all of the topics (most especially my beloved Balzac).

No one has guessed yet -- but it was Les Miserrables that we read in the abridged form. I'm still not a huge Hugo-phile, but maybe it's like oysters (which I couldn't stand until a few years ago and I now eat ravenously)-- if I keep trying maybe eventually I'll become an ardent fan!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. I wrote a paper last year on the role of Paris in Zola's *Une page d'amour*. I love the topic of Paris as a secondary character in the French novel.

Just found your blog a week or so ago and I love it! :-)

My Inner French Girl said...

Dear Polly,

I really enjoyed this post. The Paris of literature is something so little analyzed among Francophile blogs.

I imagine the Paris that Hugo imagines is the Paris many of us see as well. But I think at heart I really would agree with Balzac's vision of Paris.

Funny how Stein imagines Paris, as it reminds me of how Mme. Bovary viewed Rouen. She so longed to go to Paris to escape just such an environment, too!


New Yorkaise - Parisienne said...

Mon Dieu,

I see you are from Boston and living on the Left Bank. I spent 17 years in Boston before moving to NYC, and now ALL of my energy is focused on moving to Paris. (Montparnasse is my REAL home!) It is a work in progress. Your blog is such an inspiration to me! Thanks for your recent comment on my blog which is just getting off the ground!

New-Yorkaise - Parisienne

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