The Joy of Life

“Did not one spend the first half of one’s days in dreams of happiness and the second half in regrets and terrors?”
Émile Zola, The Joy of Life

 I am now a good chunk (have been reading for over a year) into Emile Zola’s twenty volume Rougon Macquat series of novels. Attacking this pile of books in the recommended reading order:

  • La Fortune des Rougon (1871) (The Fortune of the Rougons)
  • Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) (His Excellency Eugene Rougon/ His Excellency)
  • La Curée (1871-2) (The Kill)
  • L’Argent (1891) (Money)
  • Le Rêve (1888) (The Dream)
  • La Conquête de Plassans (1874) (The Conquest of Plassans/A Priest in the House)
  • Pot-Bouille (1882) (Pot Luck/Restless House/Piping Hot)
  • Au Bonheur des Dames (1883) (The Ladies’ Paradise/Shop Girls of Paris/Ladies’ Delight)
  • La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (1875) (The Sin of Father Mouret/Abbe Mouret’s Transgression)
  • Une Page d’amour (1878) (A Lesson in Love/A Love Episode/A Page of Love/A Love Affair)
  • Le Ventre de Paris (1873) (The Belly of Paris/The Fat and the Thin/Savage Paris/The Markets of Paris)
  • La Joie de Vivre (1884) (The Joys of Living/Joy of Life/How Jolly Life Is/Zest for Life)
  • L’Assommoir (1877) (The Dram Shop/The Gin Palace/Drink/Drunkard)
  • L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece/A Masterpiece/His Masterpiece)
  • La Bête Humaine (1890) (The Beast in the Man/The Human Beast/The Monomaniac)
  • Germinal (1885)
  • Nana (1880)
  • La Terre (1887) (The Earth/The Soil)
  • La Débâcle (1892) (The Downfall/The Smash-up/The Debacle)
  • Le Docteur Pascal (1893) (Doctor Pascal)

The next one up was The Joy of Life (La Joie de Vivre/The Joys of Living/Joy of Life/How Jolly Life Is/Zest for Life).

It is a sort-of sequel to The Belly of Paris. The protagonist is Pauline Quenu – the daughter of the owners of the successful Paris charcuterie in that novel. Between the two novels she is orphaned, and sent at nine years of age, along with her substantial fortune inherited from the business, to live with distant relatives in a dismal seaside fishing village. She moves in with an older couple, the Chanteaus, and their 19 year old son, Lazare.

The title, The Joy of Life, is an ironic one – there is little joy in the Chanteau household. The old man is crippled with gout and his wife crippled by regret. The son is a dilettante and flits from one grandiose scheme to another – each one a greater disaster than the last. Pauline is a generous, good person – and is taken advantage of over and over by everyone else in the story. Her fortune is slowly wasted away, spent on wild ideas and hopeless charity until everyone is left in abject poverty. As she comes of age she inevitably falls in love with Lazare, which is the worst thing that could possibly happen to her.

The detailed portrait of Lazare and his wasted life is a fascinating chronicle of mental illness written before our modern understanding. Lazare suffers not only from depression, anxiety and ennui – but from what we would now call OCD:

With all this were mingled certain ideas of symmetry. He would take three steps to the right and then as many to the left, and touch the different articles of furniture on either side of a window or door the same number of times. And beneath this there lurked the superstitious fancy that a certain number of touchings, some five or seven, for instance, distributed in a particular fashion, would prevent the farewell from being a final one.

I guess it’s not surprising, given the detailed and heartbreaking description of mental illness and its disastrous consequences – The Joy of Life was the favorite book of  Vincent van Gogh and is included in two of his paintings: Still Life with Bible and Vase with Oleanders and Books.

Still Life with Bible, Vincent van Gogh (1885) including a copy of The Joy of Life, by Zola

Vase with Oleanders and Books, van Gogh (1888) with The Joy of Life, by Zola

 

The book was interesting for its characters and dire setting, but isn’t one of the better books in the series. It’s relentless pessimism becomes predictable and repetitive – it makes its point about human weakness and disaster over and over – hammering it home with no subtlety or relief.

Another problem is that I only had access to the contemporary Vizettely translation and the most dramatic part of the book – a nine page section of chapter ten outlining a terribly difficult birth scene – was cut out and replaced with one short paragraph:

There came a cruel and affecting scene. It was one of those dread hours when life and death wrestle together, when human science and skill battle to overcome and correct the errors of Nature. More than once did the Doctor pause, fearing a fatal issue. The patient’s agony was terrible, but at last science triumphed, and a child was born. It was a boy.

It seems that a depiction of childbirth was too much for the delicate English-speakers of the time.

At any rate – I did enjoy the book and found it very interesting even though it became a bit of a depressing slog.

But now I have a decision to make – the next book in the series, L’Assommoir – along with four of the next five – I have already read. Years ago, before the internet, I was able to get my hands on L’Assommoir, Germinal, La Bête Humaine, and Nana – but none of the others in the Rougon-Macquart Cycle. So, do I re-read L’Assommoir? Or skip ahead to L’Œuvre (which looks really interesting).

The thing is, I have other reading to do – a lot of reading. So I should take a break and by skipping the three I have already read I’m only four books from the end.

But the other thing is… L’Assommoir is a great book – one of the best books I’ve ever read – better than the others in the cycle (so far). I’m sure I would get a lot out of it reading it as an old man and having read all the novels leading up to it. Likewise, Germinal is a classic, La Bête Humaine a heart-stopping thrill ride and Nana a guilty pleasure. So I’ll probably take a break – read my Dostoevsky – and then take up Zola’s cycle in full.

Wish me luck.

 

Short Story of the Day – Big Blonde, by Dorothy Parker

Men liked her, and she took it for granted that the liking of many men was a desirable thing. Popularity seemed to her to be worth all the work that had to be put into its achievement. Men liked you because you were fun, and when they liked you they took you out, and there you were. So, and successfully, she was fun. She was a good sport. Men like a good sport.

—- Dorothy Parker, Big Blonde

Deep Ellum Brewing Company – Dallas Blonde

Big Blonde is considered Dorothy Parker’s best, most literary work – as opposed, I guess, to her usual stuff that is considered witty.

You can read it online here: Big Blonde at Project Gutenberg Canada. It’s still under copyright in the US, so don’t print or distribute it.

Under the thin veneer of Dorothy Parker’s signature sparkling prose – this is a very sad story of a very sad and very hapless woman.  It is a well-known work (it won the O. Henry award as the best short story of 1929) with a lot of discussion about it on the internet. A lot of modern discussion is about the story’s criticism of traditional female roles and, of course, its harrowing description of alcoholism (or at least drunkenness) and depression. It is these things in spades, but I think it is more.

Hazel Morse is a hopeless drunk that is used and abused by men – but I don’t think she is an idiot and I think she had some choices. She is depressed to the edge of suicide, but is she depressed because of her life or does she live that life because of her depression? Probably a little of both. It’s also more than a little autobiographical – though I don’t think Hazel Morse would inspire so many people after all these years as Dorothy Parker does. Hazel’s parties aren’t quite up to the intellectual quality of the Algonquin Round Table.

I have been reading a bit about how struggle gives meaning to life… to the extent that life is the struggle. A corollary of this is how having happiness as the main goal of life is a recipe for disaster. Hazel and all the people in her life seem to have moment to moment happiness as their only reason for getting out of bed in the morning and as a consequence sometimes don’t even do that. They avoid struggle at all costs and end up in a hopeless struggle against the ever-present void.

The story was written and is set in 1929 – the last year of the roaring twenties. I can’t help but think about how different the story would be if it took place a couple years later. How is the Big Blonde going to make it through the Great Depression? It’s not a pretty thought.

Here’s mud in your eye.

Nanowrimo Day Seven

Ultimate goal – 50,000 words.
Daily goal – 1,667 words
Goal total so far – 11,669 words

Words written today – 1,865

Words written so far – 10,854 words
Words to goal – -824

“Sometimes I wish for falling
Wish for the release
Wish for falling through the air
To give me some relief
Because falling’s not the problem
When I’m falling I’m in peace
It’s only when I hit the ground
It causes all the grief”
― Florence Welch

Trinity River in the Fall,
Dallas, Texas

As I committed the other day I am doing Nanowrimo – the National Novel Writing Month this November – writing a 50,000 word (small) novel in a month. Not necessary a good novel, or even a readable novel, but one of 50K words.

Well it happened. I skipped a day. There is no day six.

It was inevitable, I had been too busy, missed too much sleep. I came home from work, actually had planned on what to write but I made the mistake of pausing a bit – watched the first half of the Kansas Basketball game (college basketball is my sport – KU is my team, I did go to school there) and when I stretched out for a second at halftime, to rest my eyes… suddenly it was morning, time to go to work.

Missed a day, no big deal. Went from a bit ahead to a good piece behind. The important thing is to never skip two days in a row. So on day seven I was able to pound out some words. They came easily, I had time to put a firm vision in my head. When I’ve done that, I can write as fast as I can type. Didn’t finish the scene – which is a good thing – it gives me a good place to start tomorrow.

The weekend is coming soon, will have to catch up then, get out ahead a bit.

What I wrote today was more conversations between Craig and Odette.

Snippet of what I wrote:

“I’ll tell you what,” said Odette. “I’ll make a deal with you… I’ll give you something… a gift.”

“Really? What?”

“Don’t get excited bucko – it’s not anything big.”

“Not something expensive.”

“Not worth a nickel. But rare nonetheless.”

“Now you have made me curious.”

“OK, here’s the thing. First, you don’t know me so you don’t really know whether I can give you this gift. But, if you did know me, knew me well you’d know that it isn’t only possible, it’s a gift I can give easily. Understand?”

“Not at all,” replied Craig.

“Never mind. This is my gift. I give you permission. Permission to say anything to me, anything at all. You can ask me any question at all. Since I don’t know the question, I can’t promise I’ll answer it in any particular way. I can’t promise if I’ll answer at all – there are unanswerable questions. I can’t even promise I’ll tell the truth if I answer, though I do promise to try not to lie, if possible. What I do promise is not to judge you in any way. You can ask anything, and I mean anything, without me getting upset.”

“OK.”

“I’m not done. You can ask me to do anything. Anything at all. Again, since I don’t know what you will ask I can’t promise that I’ll do what you ask, only that I won’t judge you, I won’t get upset that you asked. For example, you could ask me to jump out of the moving car right now… and I wouldn’t do it. I’d just say ‘no,’ but I wouldn’t get all pissed about you asking me to kill myself. OK?”

“OK,” was all Craig could think to say.

“Now, here’s the hardest part. You’re afraid to tell me why you wanted the car. I give you permission to tell me, tell me, again, anything, and I won’t judge you. This is hard, because I don’t know what you are going to say, but I promise I won’t get mad or won’t judge you in any way.”

“Now that is impossible. I can say anything?”

“It’s not only possible, it’s not too hard. Notice, I’m not giving you any permission to do anything, that’s something that would be impossible. But permission to say anything? All that takes is a tough skin, and I have the toughest. After all, sticks and stones….”

“I’ve always thought that old saw to be a complete lie.”

Odette ignored him.

“This is a valuable gift. Think about it. There is a person in your life now that you can ask any question, ask any favor, or tell anything to without fear.”

“OK,” Craig said again, overwhelmed.

 

Nanowrimo Day Five

Ultimate goal – 50,000 words.
Daily goal – 1,667 words
Goal total so far – 8,335 words

Words written today – 1,880

Words written so far – 8,980 words
Words to goal – +645

 

“Horns sounded from the trapped vehicles on the motorway, a despairing chorus.”
― J.G. Ballard, Crash

1957 Thunderbird

As I committed the other day I am doing Nanowrimo – the National Novel Writing Month this November – writing a 50,000 word (small) novel in a month. Not necessary a good novel, or even a readable novel, but one of 50K words.

Another tough day – was at work for twelve hours and really too tired and shook up to do any writing.

I did it anyway.

Decided on a way to bring Craig, my anti-hero, and Odette, the girl, together.

Snippet of what I wrote:

He called Meridian’s car salesman and negotiated an offer. It was high, but Craig was able to get him down a bit, mostly in order not to raise suspicion. It never looked good to appear too eager.

“I told you that price would become an object.”

“Just want things to be fair, that price is still high enough. One more thing, I’m going to pay in cash.”

“Cash? That’s nuts. Nobody has that amount of cash hanging around.”

“My client does.”

“So does mine. Cash will be fine. What did you say your client did out in California?”

“I didn’t say.”

“Fair enough.”

And that was that. He put together the proper amount and drove it halfway, meeting the dealer at a designated crossroads in the middle of nowhere. The paperwork was signed on the hood of Craig’s rental.

“Well, that’s that,” said Meridian’s agent. “Are you sure you don’t want to put half down and the rest on delivery? That’s how we usually do it.”

“Nope, this is fine.”

“Guess you trust us.”

“Of course, I know where you work, I know where you live, I know where your wife works, I know where your kids go to school.”

A quick, strong shiver went up and down the agent. He had worked for Prime Meridian for a couple decades and knew the kind of man he was dealing with. He walked back to his SUV, opened the back, raised the floor, and put the case of cash in the back, carefully hiding in the space the spare tire used to be. He put everything back the way it was.

Nanowrimo Day Four

Ultimate goal – 50,000 words.
Daily goal – 1,667 words
Goal total so far – 6,667 words

Words written today – 1,722
Words written so far – 7,100 words
Words to goal – +433

Oak Point Nature Preserve

From this picture you would think I was out in the country somewhere, cruising the Great Plains, rather than in the heart of the urban, tony suburb of Plano, Texas.

 

“I ain’t a Communist necessarily, but I have been in the red all my life.”
― Woody Guthrie

As I committed the other day I am doing Nanowrimo – the National Novel Writing Month this November – writing a 50,000 word (small) novel in a month. Not necessary a good novel, or even a readable novel, but one of 50K words.

This was a tough writing day. Since I was off work, I wanted to really spend some time and maybe double my word count in case I needed a day off this week (which looks awfully busy). But shit happens and a good bit of it did. I managed to write a couple hundred words at lunch and didn’t think I’d be able to get a lot done at night, but I managed to sit down and hammer out my quota.

I’m not to happy with what I wrote, but it is what it is. I wrote the backstory of a new character – I originally intended him to be killed early, but now that I’ve spent so long on his backstory I might keep him around for a while – maybe make him an antagonist. He is a nasty piece of work with an odd name – Prime Meridian.

I started out with the story of how his grandfather, Isaac Meridian, established the start of the family fortune by foreclosing on the misery of the  people of the plains during the great depression and the dust bowl. Too much exposition – but this is Nanowrimo, so I keep typing.

Snippet of what I wrote:

Each little town had its own movie theater, city hall, and carefully tended town square. Every weekend there would be picture shows, dances, and even traveling entertainment – tiny circuses, barnstormers, or small concert orchestras – moving from town to town earning what they could – which was usually enough. People would travel from town to town enjoying the times, making friends.

Nobody ever thought the good times would end. Until they did.

It all happened with horrific speed. The rains stopped. Nobody had understood that the rainy time was the rare exception, not the rule. The land quickly reverted back to what it had always been – a wind-blasted near desert. The crops died and then the soil began to blow. Vast dust clouds began to form as millions of tons of topsoil were blown off barren fields and carried for hundreds of miles.

Walls of dust, moving mountains of dust, shot across the plains, devouring everything in sight. To be hit by this was like walking through a storm of razors. People caught in their own yards would be forced to grope for the doorstep. Cars were forced to a standstill, and no light in the world could penetrate that swirling murk. They lived with the dust, ate it, slept with it, and watched it strip everyone of possessions and the hope of possessions

Melancholia

I usually struggle when writing about film to find something useful to write about without giving too much of the movie away. I have stopped watching or reading film reviews (before I see a film) at all – they all take the surprise away. I want to be stunned, if possible.

No such problem with Melancholia – the movie itself tells you the ending in the first few minutes. The director has said he doesn’t want there to be any suspense. He wants everyone to know how the movie ends. It ends with the destruction of the earth.

Since I don’t read film reviews any more I had never heard of Melancholia, even though I have been a semi-fan of the controversial and provocative director Lars von Trier for many years. It came on cable with an irresistible summary – “A woman’s troubled relationship with her sister is complicated by the appearance of a mysterious planet on a collision course with earth.” How could anyone resist a film like that?

The movie is divided into two chapters – each one named after one of the sisters. The first is “Justine” – and it concerns the events surrounding Justine’s (played by Kirsten Dunst) wedding reception. It’s a fancy, expensive affair, paid for by her sister’s fabulously wealthy brother-in-law John (Keifer Sutherland), and put together by a strange wedding planner (Udo Keir – he keeps walking by with his hand in front of his face to keep from looking at the bride – she has ruined “his wedding”). There’s the incredibly bitter mother (Charlotte Rampling), the asshole boss (Stellan Skarsgård), and plenty of other colorful characters.

The driving force, however, is Justine’s depression. She is crippled by melancholia to the extent that she often can’t even move. Lars von Trier has said that the movie was inspired by his own bouts with depression which make it impossible for him to work. Justine tries to put on a happy face at her own wedding celebration and to appreciate her husband, but it’s all hopeless. She is doomed.

Kirsten Dunst gives an amazing performance of a woman destroyed by depression, drowning in sadness so deep it can’t be swept away. It is painful to watch, but feels true to life – she helps us understand how she feels and how hopeless it all is.

The second chapter is titled “Claire” and the focus shifts to Justine’s sister as the mysterious planet, ironically named Melancholia appears and skims by the earth. Claire is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, the daughter of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg – and has already had a long influential career in film, music, and fashion. As the doom earth is about to suffer become more and more obvious the roles of Claire and Justine become reversed.

The ultimate irony of Melancholia is that suffering from crippling depression makes you surprisingly equipped to deal with the end of the world.

So that’s the story of the film. Depressed woman finds out that reality is even worse than what she feared and then everybody dies.

Obviously, this isn’t a tale for everybody. At times it is maddeningly slow, and the lack of hope takes away the suspense that usually feeds a moviegoer’s hunger for entertainment. However, there is a strange beauty in doom, especially cinematic doom, and once the curtain comes down our little blue planet is still spinning out there. There really isn’t a giant killer planet lurking on the other side of the sun and we can take a little joy out of that.

I was surprisingly buoyed by Justine’s struggle (and Dunst’s performance) and her doom will, ultimately, be shared by us all – it’s only a matter of timing. She was able to muster up a little dignity at the end, and that might be enough.