Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Vallès & The Child's style and humor - When exposed to the light of day, it glints like a saucepan!

I think of 19th century prose style as elaborate, based on just a few writers, I know – Flaubert, Zola, Gautier, Nerval, Hugo, and so on, writers who can really pour it on when they want, who can twist and elaborate with the best in literature.  How strange to read a contemporary of baroque Zola write like this:

What’s this something that my uncle said was at the bottom of my bag?

Ten francs!

Since they come from him, I can accept them…

I’m rich all of a sudden! (129)

This is the signature style of The Child:  frequent ellipses, short lines, single-sentence paragraphs, and incessant exclamation points.  Not every other sentence, like here, but close.  A Victor Hugo signature is a long, intricate paragraph followed by one of a single line, maybe just a word or two, the trick of a preacher or dictator.  Jules Vallès is of course just falling into the imitation of a little kid.

Here the kid, in detention and forgotten, finds a copy of Robinson Crusoe, which he reads in an intense burst:

Hunger takes over: I’m absolutely ravenous.

Am I  going to be reduced to eating the rats in the hold of the classroom?  How can I make a fire?  I’m thirsty, too.  No bananas!  Ah, he had fresh limes!  And to think how I adore lemonade!

Click!  Clack!  Someone’s fiddling at the keyhole.

Is it Man Friday?  Or the savages?  (96)

No, it is merely the embarrassed teacher who had forgotten him for so many hours.  Those extra-wide breaks between paragraphs are from the text.  Chapters are chopped to fragments, even within a scene, as here.

Not that Vallès has not picked up some tricks from Flaubert or the Goncourt brothers or whomever he was reading.  The adult writer takes over to describe a bakery:

The owners are standing behind the counter weighing the round loaves and they too are wearing coats that are whitish or the color of rye.  In addition to the round loaves, there are cakes in the windows: brioches looking like plump noses or tarts like crumpled bits of tissue paper.  (32)

The novel has plenty of little rewards.

I should mention something about the humor of the book.  There is plenty, despite the poor narrator’s frequent beatings.  Much of it – most, maybe – comes from his mother, an updated, lively version of the miserly French peasant, social-climbing yet suspicious of everything outside here little sphere.  When her son wins a school prize, she is certainly not going to buy him a coat for the ceremony.

She rummages around in a large wardrobe that contains her wedding dress, some umbrella covers, remnants of skirts, odd scraps of silk.
Finally she scratches herself on a garish piece of material, so filelike in quality that it scrapes your fingers when you touch it.  When exposed to  the light of day, it glints like a saucepan!  A really lovely material inherited from my grandmother and which cost a “mint of money.”  (38)

And the coat is not the end of it, as the poor kid has to suffer through buttons, and a hat, and white stirrup pants “like a device for a clubfoot.” 

“MY SON,” announced my mother triumphantly, pushing me forward when we arrived at the entrance.  (40)

Maybe it’s not Mel Brooks, all right.  But the mother is a fine character.


  1. That scene you quote at the end of your post is one I've witnessed several times firsthand (with variations on the clothing's degree of glinti-ness, of course).

    I have picked up this book twice and put it down twice; perhaps a third effort will pay off.

  2. I'm going to, I hope, start writing about Zola today, and this ain't exactly Zola, I grant that.

  3. Forgive my self-promotion, but here is news . . . FYI

  4. I'm woefully under-read when it comes to the great novelists of the 19th century, but this one does sound very interesting. I love the quotes you've included here.

  5. Vallès is certainly second-tier, but this particular book is well-known in France, as are its sequels, which are unavailable in English. I hope The Child is never assigned in school, though. The irony would be too painful.