A Love Episode

“It was always the same; other people gave up loving before she did. They got spoilt, or else they went away; in any case, they were partly to blame. Why did it happen so? She herself never changed; when she loved anyone, it was for life. She could not understand desertion; it was something so huge, so monstrous that the notion of it made her little heart break.”
Émile Zola, Une Page d’amour

A Love Episode, Emile Zola

 

I am now a good chunk 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 A Love Episode.

At this point I have finished the last of the books from the Mouret section of the Rougon Macquat books. The Rougon section dwelt mostly on the upper classes, especially on the mad ruthless speculation in L’Argent. Then came the Mouret branch of the family – middle class workers fighting to get ahead – and not always succeeding.  Now, after A Love Episode I will move into the Macquat  books – where poverty, drunkeness, and madness await. I’ve read four of these already – will have to decide whether to re-read them or not.

One characteristic of the last few books has been elaborate, extensive, florid, and detailed description. In A Love Episode this mostly consists of pages of description of the appearance of Paris out of the window of the protagonists suburban apartment. The changes in weather and light over the magnificent city reflect the inner turmoil that the main characters are experiencing.

It’s a short book, the easiest so far to read, that details… as the title suggests, a romance. The love story is between a beautiful young widow and the doctor that lives next door. He comes to her aid when her daughter falls ill. This is Paris, so the fact he is married is not an immovable obstacle, even though she is of sound moral character. The daughter, however, is sickly and very jealous, which leads to complications and, this being a Zola novel, an ultimate disaster.

A quick, fun, read… with a nice bunch of interesting characters – folks like those that you will still meet today.

If you look hard enough

A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 22 – The Nightingale and the Rose

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day Twenty Two – The Nightingale and the Rose, by Oscar Wilde

Read it online here:

The Nightingale and the Rose

There is no wittier writer in the history of the world than Oscar Wilde. I remember reading The Portrait of Dorian Gray as a kid and staring in wonder across the pages at the pithy quotes and aphorisms sprinkled throughout the text. These nuggets of wisdom and bile were a second story concealed within the main book – I had a feeling that Wilde was pouring his real beliefs and feelings into these witticisms as much as into the events of the main text.

The novel feels like it was written by compiling a long, long list of witty barbs – and only then constructing a story as a framework or trellis to display them on.

  • there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about
  • But beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins.
  • You seem to forget that I am married, and the one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties.
  • Being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know.
  • As for believing things, I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible.
  • Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.
  • I can’t help detesting my relations. I suppose it comes from the fact that none of us can stand other people having the same faults as ourselves.
  • genius lasts longer than beauty.
  • The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.
  • The bravest man amongst us is afraid of himself.
  • It has been said that the great events of the world take place in the brain. It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the great sins of the world take place also.
  • I always like to know everything about my new friends, and nothing about my old ones.
  • Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.
  • He was always late on principle, his principle being that punctuality is the thief of time.
  • I never talk during music–at least, during good music. If one hears bad music, it is one’s duty to drown it in conversation.
  • Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
  • Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: both are disappointed.
  • She was free in her prison of passion.
  • Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.
  • To be in love is to surpass one’s self.
  • Women … inspire us with the desire to do masterpieces, and always prevent us from carrying them out.
  • There are only two kinds of people who are really fascinating — people who know absolutely everything, and people who know absolutely nothing.
  • There is always something ridiculous about the emotions of people whom one has ceased to love.
  • We live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities.
  • One can always be kind to people about whom one cares nothing.
  • It often seems to me that art conceals the artist far more completely than it ever reveals him.
  • Is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not. It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities.
  • Each of us has heaven and hell in him.
  • I love scandals about other people, but scandals about myself don’t interest me. They have not got the charm of novelty.
  • Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face. It cannot be concealed. People talk sometimes of secret vices. There are no such things. If a wretched man has a vice, it shows itself in the lines of his mouth, the droop of his eyelids, the moulding of his hands even.
  • Each of us has heaven and hell in him.
  • Nobody ever commits a crime without doing something stupid.
  • The husbands of very beautiful women belong to the criminal classes.
  • It is perfectly monstrous the way people go about nowadays saying things against one behind one’s back that are absolutely and entirely true.
  • Women love us for our defects. If we have enough of them, they will forgive us everything, even our intellects.
  • A man can be happy with any woman, as long as he does not love her.
  • I like men who have a future and woman who have a past.
  • Moderation is a fatal thing. Enough is as bad as a meal. More than enough is as good as a feast.
  • I admit that I think that it is better to be beautiful than to be good. But on the other hand, no one is more ready than I am to acknowledge that it is better to be good than to be ugly.
  • Scepticism is the beginning of faith.
  • The only horrible thing in the world is ennui,
  • To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable.
  • The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young.

Over the years I have become a big fan of quotations. Oscar Wilde is the never ending fount of the pithy quote. For that, if nothing else, I am grateful.

Today’s story is very short and simple tale – not enough room for any extraneous worlds of wisdom. Alas.

But it starts out as a romantic fairy tale and appears to be so until you reach the final, dying words. Never fear, though – Wilde’s bitter cynicism will not be denied.

“No red rose in all my garden!” he cried, and his beautiful eyes filled with tears. “Ah, on what little things does happiness depend! I have read all that the wise men have written, and all the secrets of philosophy are mine, yet for want of a red rose is my life made wretched.”

204

He had met her through a mutual friend that thought they would be good for each other. On their first date, he had taken her to Olivier’s and it felt like they had known each other all their lives. They ate Creole Rabbit and Crawfish Étouffée.

She left him on a gray and drizzling day. He still goes to Olivier’s and watches for her, though he knows she won’t come walking in.

204

Sunday Snippet – Punch Card (How I Met Your Grandmother)

I had a writing teacher once that said that ideas were swimming through the air all around us and if you didn’t catch one as it went by, someone else would.

This morning, I caught an idea for a short story and wrote down an outline before I went out for a bicycle ride. There are four scenes, spread out over, say, forty years. The working title for the story is Punch Card (How I Met Your Grandmother).

Here’s the second scene, which takes place in the past (maybe 1975 or so). I’ll write the other three scenes over the next few days – hopefully to take to my writing group. If you want a copy of the first draft when I finish it, send me an email at bill*chance99@gmail.com – except put a period where the asterisk is and the number 57 where the 99 is (take that spammers).

I hated the punch card machine more than anything I had ever hated before. I was a junior, majoring in comparative literature and since I wasn’t in the computer science department I could only use the computer lab after ten in the evening. The giant computer itself took up half of the bottom floor of the building – but nobody was ever allowed to go or even see in there. The other half was filled with a filthy snack bar, lined with rusty autobots that spat out moldy candy bars and bags of stale off-brand potato chips – and a series of dingy rooms filled with hundreds of punch card machines.

I had taken an elective class in Fortran programming because I thought that computers were the future and I was worried about paying rent after graduation. Writing the assigned programs was easy – find the sides and angles of a right triangle, the day of a date, or draw a series of boxes. I could write the code, but I couldn’t punch the cards.

My homework problems had to be punched onto these beige cards – rectangular with one corner cut off. I had to buy a case of the damn things at the beginning of the semester. I couldn’t imagine using all those cards. I didn’t know. Three months later, I had to buy another half-box from some kid in my dorm. I was always a terrible typist and would get nervous, freeze up and hit the wrong letter.

This was worse than a typewriter. You would load a stack of cards into the machine and then it would warm up and start to hum. The heat would rise and the ozone would burn your nose. The keys were big and yellow and had to be shoved hard before the machine would roar and then… “Blam!” it would whack a little tiny rectangle out of the card. A paper flake would fly through the air to join the thick layer of cardstock confetti coating the floor and, magic, a corresponding hole would appear in the card itself.

With the punchcard machine a mistake was a disaster. I never could see that I’d missed a key. Sure, the code printed out along the top of the card but they never put new ribbons in the machines and it was always too faint for me to read. When I had my stack of cards all finished I’d take them into the computer room, wrap them with a rubber band, and shove them through this little wooden door in the wall where they would fall down a chute. You never could even see what was on the other side.

Then it was time to wait. Wait for hours. I’d spend all night there, waiting for my program to run. Then, my output would drop down another, bigger, chute into a pile. Every time an output would drop, all the kids waiting would run in and see if it was theirs. It was horrible.

You see, if your program ran correctly you’d get a few sheets of paper with the code and the answer printed on it but I never did. I’d find my cards still rubberbanded together and clipped to a huge stack of pinfeed folded green and white striped paper. On the top would be a handwritten note that would say something like, “Core Dump, you loser!”

Whenever you made a mistake, even a tiny one, the core would dump and the computer would print out hundreds of pages of gibberish. You were supposed to carefully peruse the printouts and find your error in there somewhere but nobody had time for that. You’d throw the printout in this huge wooden bin, scratch your head, and start looking for your mistake. I have no idea why they wasted all that paper.

Sometimes it would be a mistake in my work, but usually it was a typo in my card punching. I figured out that the little holes corresponded to letters, numbers, or symbols and I punched out a card with everything on it, in order, and I would have to slide the thing slowly over every card I had punched to try and find the mistake.

It was horrible. I would be so tired, my eyes swimming, sitting at that huge punch machine, trying to type. I’d make a mistake and throw the card onto the overflowing trash bins and start again. Even when I made it through a card, I’d be terrified I had made an unknown error and would generate another core dump. It was killing me… but I had nowhere else to go.

Our instructor was always harping on us to put in comment cards. These were punch cards marked in a certain way that they didn’t make the computer do anything, but simply left comments. You were supposed to leave comments about what your code was supposed to be doing or what your variable represented or why you decided to do something the way you did. It was a pain in the ass and I never did it until the teacher started marking my grade down because I had insufficient comments in my code.

So I started putting the comments in, though I never commented on the code. I figured he didn’t really look through everybody’s work for these things and only took the computer’s count of how many comments were in here. Sometimes I’d just gripe… like, “Fortran really sucks,” or “This is too hard,” or “It’s way too late at night to be doing this.”

This got to be pretty boring pretty fast so I switched to some of my favorite Shakespeare Quotes, “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport” or “There’s not a note of mine that’s worth the noting,” or “I am not bound to please thee with my answer.” I might make some mistakes punching the comments… but who cared? They would still go through as comments and you could still read them.

Like it was yesterday, I remember the day when I picked up my output and, sure enough, there was the big thick stack of folded paper, another core dump, but instead of a handwritten note, there was a punched card on top of my stack. It was different in that it had been done on a machine that had a fresh ribbon in it and across the top, in crisp, clear, printing, it said, “Funny Comments Ronald. You’re getting close. Ck crd 7 error in do loop – Christine.”

And sure enough, in my seventh card I had hit a capital letter “Z” instead of a number “2.” I never would have seen that.

So I redoubled my efforts at witty, humorous, and obscure quotations for my comment cards. I was reading this huge crazy new book called Gravity’s Rainbow and one day I quoted from it. Stuff like, “You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.” or “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers,” or “Danger’s over, Banana Breakfast is saved.”

My program ran that time and the card on top said, “A screaming comes across the sky – Christine,” which made me so happy I didn’t stop smiling for a day.

The next program, I added a comment card that said, “Christine, I can’t see you – Ronald.”

And it came back with, “I know, but I can see you. I think you’re cute – Christine.”

So I thought about it and worked up my courage. At the end of a program that I larded with my best quotes from the composition book I carried with me and scribbled in all the time… my commonplace book, I finished with a card that said “Christine, I want to meet you – Ronald.”

All that night I was the first to fight their way in to grab any program that slid down the chute, only to be disappointed again and again as other student’s projects ran before mine. Finally, as the sky was beginning to turn a light pink in the west, my program dropped. On top was a card. I ran back to my dorm room to read it, not daring to look at it anywhere in public.

It said, “Love to Ronald. Snarky’s at six, on Thursday. Don’t be late – Christine.”

Snarky’s was a little chain restaurant off campus not far from the computer building. My heart almost beat out of my chest. Thursday was going to take a long time to get there.

La Desperada

A few weeks ago I read a book that I ordinarily would not have read. This isn’t surprising, I’m not the target audience for this genre of fiction. I volunteered to read and review the new book by the teacher of a fiction class I took a few years ago, Patricia (Pooks) Burroughs. It’s a historical romance novel called La Desperada.

I didn’t want to put this up until the book was available – you can buy the ebook here. Go ahead, get it… you know you want to. I guarantee that this is the sort of thing you will like if you like this sort of thing.

This is the second romance novel I’ve read. The first was a random thin paperback Harlequin I picked up maybe thirty years ago and read out of sheer curiosity. Don’t ask the title, it’s long lost in my memory, along with the plot, characters, theme… or anything at all about the book except my visceral reaction to it. I remember that I read it in a couple of hours, although I’m not a particularly fast reader. I was able to crank through it so quickly because, First – I had the feeling I knew what the next sentence, paragraph, scene, chapter, all of it – was going to be. And I was always right. Second, I could read it fast because there was nothing there.

I did not become a fan of the genre after that first taste.

So now I am faced with La Desperada and writing a review of a book in a genre that I simply don’t read. Luckily, La Desperada is a much, much better book that that old Harlequin. It is a Romance, but there is much more going on between the pages, and it is written with a lot more ambition, excitement, and skill.

I went to school in Lawrence, Kansas. On days when the weather was nice, I used to walk from my dorm across Iowa Street into an ancient cemetery for a nice quiet place to sit outside and study. Sometimes I would even lean against an old tombstone with a textbook in my lap. Over time, I read most of the stones – they were all victims of Quantrill’s raid – where in a prelude to the civil war a band of Missouri based outlaws came across and burned Lawrence, slaughtering a good many of the residents.

I’m familiar with the history and passion of those days of violence and banditry and was glad to read that the prologue of La Desperada was set in Clay County, Missouri and that the heart of the conflict was born from the evil that spread across the land in those days.

Then the real story begins in West Texas – the town of Cavendish in 1881. Civilization had a tenuous hold on that wild land. There was still a place for men like Clayton Dougherty – men representing the law though they were at best barely on the right side of it – and too often, on the wrong. The uneasy, unstable, and ultimately cataclysmic triangle of Clayton, his intelligent and virtuous but scarred brother Joel, and Joel’s wife Elizabeth is thrown into violence and death when an outlaw, Boone Coulter shows up.

Once the story gets going, Boone and Elizabeth are on the run together, trying to escape their doom fleeing through the rugged desert and mountains of far West Texas and the untamed frontier towns of New Mexico.

I’ve driven North from Van Horn, Texas, along the valley east of the Sierra Diablo and felt the silent menace of those ragged cliffs and heat blasted salt flats. It looks wild and dangerous, and is so, even from a minivan. I’ve hiked up McKittrick Canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains (which must be the location of Boone’s hidden cabin hideout) and seen the magical beauty that a little water and shade can create in the high desert. My favorite aspect of La Desperada is the effort, imagination, and attention to detail that Patricia injects into the romance to pay homage to the setting and the landscape. West Texas, for good and bad, becomes another character in the story, and that is a very good thing.

That is the skill and effort that elevates the story above the run-of-the-mill romance. There is a real story here, real danger, real complexity. The romantic storyline is intact and moves as expected, but beyond that there is plenty of meat to sink your teeth into.

My only complaint with the book was the sex scenes. They arrive periodically and predictably and I found myself simply skipping these sections. This is not due to any prudishness on my part – I’m up for a little titillation without any qualms. I simply found the sex scenes in La Desperada clichéd and, I’m afraid, simply unexciting. I don’t know if that is a requirement of the genre (Bodice Ripping in the Old West) or not. At any rate, jumping over a page now and then didn’t damage the story at all – so it was all good.

When you are writing about someone else’s work, it is usually a bad idea to opine about what you would like to see done differently. You should write about what the book is, not what it is not. In this case, however, I want to give my opinion; I can’t resist. There is a secondary character that works to move the story forward – he has a doomed relationship with the the outlaw’s sister – his name is Miguél Obregón. I found this flawed, dangerous, evil, yet honorable in his own way character to be the most interesting thing in the book. I would love to read a book written about the love story between him and the sister from his point of view.

That would be something.

Links:

Sample Chapter

Review from Book Babe

Review from Journey of a Bookseller

Fresh Fiction

Blue Valentine

All my life, movies have been very important to me. I have always enjoyed watching them, going to the theater, sitting there in the dark and waiting for the curtains to rise on a whole ‘nother world.

In this modern digital age, in this best of all possible worlds, we now have such access to film – at any time, in any place, we can watch anything we want. The entire world and history of cinema is available in forms that weren’t even imaginable only a decade ago.

But I don’t ever seem to have the time to sit down and watch anything.

The other evening, I had a lot to do. I had promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep. But I was still sick, tired, and worn out… so I decided to go lay down, turn on the cable, and watch whatever came up.

What came up was Blue Valentine.

It was crackerjack.

It’s a character driven story of a young couple, played by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. It jumps in time from the very beginning of their relationship to a point in time six years later when everything is on the rocks. They are both deeply flawed, working class people, who come from disastrously dysfunctional backgrounds and you can feel the fear and effort as they fight to raise themselves out of the doom that they have forseen.

Michelle Williams won a golden globe the other night… but I always think of her as the teenager in The Station Agent. She is a revelation in this movie – when she says she wants to be a doctor you wan to believe that is a possibility. Ryan Gosling is a wiry drunk with bad tattoos and a heart of gold. The transformation of the two from the scenes that represent the early stages of their relationship to the end is amazing – they seem to age a century in six years. Her face gets puffy and his gaunt, as the hope is slowly drained from their lives.

The movie was initially rated NC-17 – and there is a lot of rawness to the film, including the sex scenes. These have to be in the movie, though, the story is told through the sex as much as through the dialog.

After I watched it I wandered the web for a bit reading what other folks thought. The funny thing was how many people took sides – with one of the couple or the other. They couldn’t understand why the couple was having so much trouble making it work and were fishing around for someone to blame. Neither character had any idea how to behave and would, at any moment, make the wrong decision. They had no way to learn… other than to plow ahead as best as they could. There is a lot left unseen in the film, a lot must have gone down in the six years between… and the film treats us to the wreckage crashing down around the couple’s heads.

Both were decent people, inside. They are just like us.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers. The two timelines of the movie scream toward each other until we are witness to the final epiphany. Will the two lovers conquer all and march into the sunset arm and arm – damaged but hopeful? Or is all hope lost?

The characters are fatally flawed, but aren’t we all?

WordPress Blogs with entries tagged Blue Valentine:

Why So Blue?

Blue Valentine {My Thoughts}

Blue Valentine Review

Things the Chin Likes or maybe loves – this movie

Film: Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine

Scene: Blue Valentine – Motel Dance

My Very Own Blue Valentine