Friday, April 24, 2009

Zola & the contemporary arts

I dislike Emile Zola; his novels bore me. Nonetheless, his talent is undoubtedly a WRITERLY talent. Let's see what I mean. This is from 1880's Nana:

The "Petite Duchesse" was being rehearsed at the Varietes. The first act had just been carefully gone through, and the second was about to begin. Seated in old armchairs in front of the stage, Fauchery and Bordenave were discussing various points while the prompter, Father Cossard, a little humpbacked man perched on a straw-bottomed chair, was turning over the pages of the manuscript, a pencil between his lips.

"Well, what are they waiting for?" cried Bordenave on a sudden, tapping the floor savagely with his heavy cane. "Barillot, why don't they begin?"

"It's Monsieur Bosc that has disappeared," replied Barillot, who was acting as second stage manager.'

Then there arose a tempest, and everybody shouted for Bosc while Bordenave swore.

"Always the same thing, by God! It's all very well ringing for 'em: they're always where they've no business to be. And then they grumble when they're kept till after four o'clock."

But Bosc just then came in with supreme tranquillity.

"Eh? What? What do they want me for? Oh, it's my turn! You ought to have said so. All right! Simonne gives the cue: 'Here are the guests,' and I come in. Which way must I come in?"

"Through the door, of course," cried Fauchery in great exasperation.

"Yes, but where is the door?"

At this Bordenave fell upon Barillot and once more set to work swearing and hammering the boards with his cane.

"By God! I said a chair was to be put there to stand for the door, and every day we have to get it done again. Barillot! Where's Barillot? Another of 'em! Why, they're all going!"

Nevertheless, Barillot came and planted the chair down in person, mutely weathering the storm as he did so. And the rehearsal began again. 


At this point, while the rehearsal was dragging monotonously on, Fauchery suddenly jumped from his chair. He had restrained himself up to that moment, but now his nerves got the better of him.

"That's not it!" he cried.

The actors paused awkwardly enough while Fontan sneered and asked in his most contemptuous voice:

"Eh? What's not it? Who's not doing it right?"

"Nobody is! You're quite wrong, quite wrong!" continued Fauchery, and, gesticulating wildly, he came striding over the stage and began himself to act the scene.

"Now look here, you Fontan, do please comprehend the way Tardiveau gets packed off. You must lean forward like this in order to catch hold of the duchess. And then you, Rose, must change your position like that but not too soon--only when you hear the kiss."

He broke off and in the heat of explanation shouted to Cossard:

"Geraldine, give the kiss! Loudly, so that it may be heard!"

Father Cossard turned toward Bosc and smacked his lips vigorously.

"Good! That's the kiss," said Fauchery triumphantly. "Once more; let's have it once more. Now you see, Rose, I've had time to move, and then I give a little cry--so: 'Oh, she's given him a kiss.' But before I do that, Tardiveau must go up the stage. D'you hear, Fontan? You go up. Come, let's try it again, all together."

The actors continued the scene again, but Fontan played his part with such an ill grace that they made no sort of progress. Twice Fauchery had to repeat his explanation, each time acting it out with more warmth than before. The actors listened to him with melancholy faces, gazed momentarily at one another, as though he had asked them to walk on their heads, and then awkwardly essayed the passage, only to pull up short directly afterward, looking as stiff as puppets whose strings have just been snapped.

"No, it beats me; I can't understand it," said Fontan at length, speaking in the insolent manner peculiar to him.

Bordenave had never once opened his lips. He had slipped quite down in his armchair, so that only the top of his hat was now visible in the doubtful flicker of the gaslight on the stand. His cane had fallen from his grasp and lay slantwise across his waistcoat. Indeed, he seemed to be asleep. But suddenly he sat bolt upright.

"It's idiotic, my boy," he announced quietly to Fauchery.

"What d'you mean, idiotic?" cried the author, growing very pale. "It's you that are the idiot, my dear boy!"

Bordenave began to get angry at once. He repeated the word "idiotic" and, seeking a more forcible expression, hit upon "imbecile" and "damned foolish." The public would hiss, and the act would never be finished! And when Fauchery, without, indeed, being very deeply wounded by these big phrases, which always recurred when a new piece was being put on, grew savage and called the other a brute, Bordenave went beyond all bounds, brandished his cane in the air, snorted like a bull and shouted:

"Good God! Why the hell can't you shut up? We've lost a quarter of an hour over this folly. Yes, folly! There's no sense in it. And it's so simple, after all's said and done! You, Fontan, mustn't move. You, Rose, must make your little movement, just that, no more; d'ye see? And then you come down. Now then, let's get it done this day. Give the kiss, Cossard."

Then ensued confusion. The scene went no better than before. Bordenave, in his turn, showed them how to act it about as gracefully as an elephant might have done, while Fauchery sneered and shrugged pityingly. After that Fontan put his word in, and even Bosc made so bold as to give advice. Rose, thoroughly tired out, had ended by sitting down on the chair which indicated the door. No one knew where they had got to, and by way of finish to it all Simonne made a premature entry, under the impression that her cue had been given her, and arrived amid the confusion. 


Zola is a master of this kind of scene: the confused, the tedious, the pompous, the hoarse-with-shouting, pettiness, the difficulty of managing different egos, the frustrating, the not-worthwhile. 

Completely wonderful, acutely observed elements:

  • The title, "The Little Duchess": surely there have been dozens of boring comedies with this title. Its mediocrity is guaranteed and inborn.
  • Having the hunchback prompt-reader read the role of the courtesan during rehearsal, complete with kisses!
  • The *absence* of the chair used to stand in for the door through which the actors enter the scene.
  • "Rose, thoroughly tired out, had ended by sitting down on the chair which indicated the door."
  • The number of missed cues, while tedious, is effective at producing the "confusion" and racket which Zola is aiming at.
Now, this is just an example that jumped out at me recently. It's not the greatest writing ever. But the man was MEANT TO BE A WRITER. He is funny, versatile, effective at different "voices" and tones, gives a scene well, can be deadpan, "shows" rather than tells, but with a certain irony, etc. This is Zola.

Take, on the other hand, contemporary arts. Writing, music, painting, etc. How many MFA students are trying to write their little stories for a magazine right now, with no innate skill at the "little touches" which Zola brings to his novel? How many musicians with a mere workmanlike uncatchiness and/or a laborious pretentiousness in creating "soundscapes" with none of the UNDERSTANDING OF EFFECT which, say, Wagner brings? How many artists without the flair for the something-memorable which (to mix genres) is evident from the *very first line* of Rimbaud's "Season in Hell"??

What I want from art: the production of ARTISTS, of persons for whom their expression in artistic form is a kind of "first language," with a skill at dynamics, comedy, effects, pace. In music, think of The Clash, the melancholy of the album "London Calling"; in literature, Conrad's improbable comedy of errors,  "The Secret Agent," and in cinema, Howard Hawks' dialogue. These are all form-specific, but the creators' "knack" is evident--they are creating something for us; pacing, tone, dynamics, pastiche, comedy-- I am also thinking of the name "Proust."

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