Friday, December 11, 2020

Émile Gaboriau's proto-mystery Corde au cou - "What would a policeman be who did not know how to disguise himself"

“The great Gaboriau said, didn’t he? – ‘always suspect that which seems probable, and begin by believing what seems incredible.’”

“If he said that, the great Gaboriau must have been a half-wit.  I’ve never heard such a cheap, fantastic paradox.”

Here we eavesdrop on the detective and his wife discussing a case in Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die (1938, Ch. 10 of the last section), and what strikes me is that “Blake” assumed that his Golden Age English detective novel readers could more or less identify Émile Gaboriau, one of the precursors of the detective novel.  Or maybe they could not; maybe this was an extremely private joke of “Blake’s.”

In the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet (1887), Watson brings up Gaboriau, only to have Holmes dismiss his most famous detective, M. Lecoq, as a “’miserable bungler…  That book made me positively ill.’”

For some reason I recently read a Gaboriau novel, Corde au cou (Rope around the Throat, 1873), a 500-pager* that does not feature Lecoq (although he is mentioned), but another detective, M. Goudar, who does not appear until page 300 or so.  My first glimpse of him is on a ladder, where “he was covering his superb trellised chasselas grapes in horsehair sacks” (303, translations all mine).  The last line of the novel, after wrapping up everyone else’s story: “And Goudar, nursery gardener, sells the most beautiful peaches in Paris.”

Goudar is also a master of disguise: “’What would a policeman be who did not know how to disguise himself,’ he interrupted” (356).

I am just saying that some of this should look awfully familiar to readers of a certain era of English detective fiction.  Still, no detective until page 300; this is not itself exactly a detective novel (although come to think of it that Blake novel does not introduce the detective until the 50% mark).

What else is in Corde au cou?  How about some plot:

A count is shot, seriously injured, and his farm is burned.  Two men die fighting the fire.  A neighboring nobleman, Jacques de Boiscoran is implicated by a range of evidence, and he refuses to defend himself.  What is he hiding; who is he protecting?  Lawyers do the detecting for a while, first the prosecutor and then the defense attorney (I am substituting the equivalent American roles).  Corde au cou  is more like a “judicial novel,” with lots of lawyers and courtroom scenes.  The defense attorney discovers that his client, Boiscoran, has for many years had a love affair with his neighbor the countess, but has recently dumped her to marry someone else.  So now we have many motives, both for Boiscoran to attack her husband, and for the vengeful countess to frame her former lover.  All right, there’s a tangle.

The tension of the story, though, is not really in the crime but the dissonance between the archaic honor culture of the nobility and the more sordid realities of modern France.  Why does Boiscoran want to protect the countess’s “reputation”?  He is not, and never was, a courtly knight.

Jean-Bernard Pouy, in Une brève histoire du roman noir (A Brief History of the Crime Novel, 2009) writes that Gaboriau “moved away, little by little, from the ‘judicial novel,’ throwing Lecoq, his main character, into increasingly precise and vengeful adventures in the context of the corrupt society of the Second Empire,” and he singles out Corde au cou and Gaboriau’s next novel.  Pouy’s line does not exactly describe Corde au cou, which lacks Lecoq and overlaps the Second Empire and the Third Republic (the events of 1870 are a hinge in the story), but the point about corruption is right.  The strange thing is that the nobility, the leaders, are honorable and if anything too obsessed with integrity, while literally everyone else is corrupt, almost openly for sale.  The social critique is not what I would call democratic.  The critique, the tension, is built into the form of the novel, which alternates between a Romantic mode and a Realist mode, Chateaubriand characters and Balzac characters.  As is the case with many later detective novels, the social novel has more meaning than the crime novel.

I am not saying that Corde au cou is The Moonstone or something, not by any means.  There were long stretches where I was dying for an interesting sentence (the French was not too hard, though).  But there is an interesting story about the interaction between French and English detective fiction that I would like to understand better.  If only Gaboriau’s novels weren’t so long.

* Page references are to the 1874 edition, available from The Bibliothèque nationale de France.


Tuesday, December 1, 2020

What I read in November, all in one place for some reason

What I read in November, in list form, with light opinionation.  No idea what good this is to me, except psychologically, and I doubt that, much less to anyone else.  If I wrote something else, I include the link.


La Bête du Vaccarès (1926), Joseph d’Arbaud.  Tourism and other interesting things.

Poèmes : 1919-48, André Breton.  Really just 1932-48.  I would never guess from Breton’s 1930 poems that this is the Surrealism tyrant phase, or the Communist phase.  The poems look a lot like they did in the 1920s.  The “Ode to Charles Fourier” looks different, but that is from 1947.  Breton seems second-rate to me.  Louis Aragon is more linguistically playful, a better poet all around. Benjamin Péret is more pure, more committed to the concept.  Still, I found plenty of good lines, good images, even whole poems.  The little 1934 collection L'air de l'eau (The Air of the Water) seemed especially striking.

La Corde au cou (Rope to the Throat, maybe, 1873), Émile Gaboriau.  Most of my French reading energy was for some reason drained into a 500-page proto-mystery.  I want to write separately about this book.  I hereby commit to etc.  It ain’t The Moonstone, but it’s interesting.


The Complete Poems (1994), Basil Bunting.  A good Auden imitator in the 1930s, the war and a long break from poetry turned him into his own poet, most notably in the long “Briggflats” (1966), but I need to reread him to know what I mean by any of that.

Rescue (1945), Czeslaw Milosz.

North and South (1946), Elizabeth Bishop.

First Poems (1951), James Merrill.

What I really read here are the relevant parts of volumes of Collected Poems (or selected, for Merrill, From the First Nine), so I don’t know what tinkering and quiet omission has been done.  All three poets are firmly material, in contrast to so many Surrealists and Audenists of the previous decade.  If the poem is titled “The Fish,” it may be about many things, but at least one of them, no matter how lost I might get, is a fish.

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.  (Bishop)

Milosz’s material reality is the destruction of Warsaw and everything around him.  Merrill’s is rather different:

Friday.  Clear.  Cool.  This is your day.  Stendhal
At breakfast-time.  The metaphors of love.  (“Variations: The Air Is Sweetest that a Thistle Guards”)


Young Joseph (1934), Thomas Mann.

The Beast Must Die (1938), Nicholas Blake.  The flap said this is often called the greatest detective novel ever written, which is preposterous.  The 1990 Crime Writers’ Association poll put it at #81 which is plausible.  It is cleverly structured, with the detective not appearing until the exact halfway point.  It is quite funny, with some pathos at the beginning and end.  Since “Nicholas Blake” was a poet, I had hopes that his writing would be interesting, but he writes in the conventional commercial style that almost every English Golden Age mystery writer adopted.  It’s better than the Blake I read a couple of months ago, Thou Shell of Death (1936).

Murphy (1938), Samuel Beckett.

At Swim-Too-Birds (1939), Flann O’Brien.  Wild things going on in Irish fiction at the end of the 1930s!  So much fun.

The Day of the Locust (1939), Nathanael West.  Of West’s three little novels, this apocalyptic small-time Hollywood novel is the most conventional, although certain scenes are spectacular.  The chapter where the protagonist wanders through a wilderness of movie sets, for example – Surrealism perfectly harnessed for narrative fiction.  Still, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) feels like the one where the abyss is bottomless.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), Katherine Anne Porter.  Ah, these are great.  Three fifty-page “short novels” (Porter loathed the word “novella”), two of them about her greatest invention, her stand-in character Miranda.  She is a child in “Old Mortality,” working through her family history in East Texas and New Orleans, and a young theater critic in let’s call it Denver in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” where she is stricken, hard, with the Spanish flu.  Poor “Noon Wine,” a non-Miranda story, is almost lost between them, but it is good, too, a fine piece of American violence.  But it's "Old Mortality" that is like Texas Proust (the Proust of “Combray,” specifically, the best Proust).

Galileo (1947), Bertolt Brecht.


The Novel, an Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 (2010), Steven Moore.  A good way to demolish any simple notions of “firstness” – first novel, first English novel, first (any adjective) novel.  Also to demolish any notion of being well-read.  Moore is limited in his reading only by the energy of translators.  An exercise that would be useful simply as a list is also full of good criticism, with extended sections on The Arabian Nights, The Plum in the Golden Vase, The Tale of Genji, and many more books filled with the most extraordinary things.  Learning that some of these books exist at all is a pleasure, like the burst of Byzantine fiction in the 12th century, or Tibetan religious fiction in the 15th.  So much fun.  I said that up above, too.  I could have said it more.