Friday, February 5, 2016

Parisian Sketches by Emile Zola

Hearty, bite-sized literary hors d’oeuvres
Emile Zola
The four short stories by Emile Zola that are referred to as the Parisian Sketches do not constitute a complete book. At best they may amount to about 40 pages of text. These stories can be found in complete works collections or included in old hard cover volumes ganged up with some other novella, like A Dead Woman’s Wish. I’m not sure when these four stories were originally published in French. The 1902 translation by Count C. de Soissons may have been their first appearance in English.

These four short stories are very short indeed, and “sketches” is a good word to describe them. Only one of them really has a plot. The other three are primarily just descriptive pieces in which Zola pays homage to a Parisian “type.” Despite their brevity and paucity of narrative, these four selections are pretty strong snippets of Zola’s writing. He not only demonstrates his uncanny talent for naturalistic description and scientific insight into human nature, but also injects each story with a humor that exemplifies the risqué irreverence for which he was renowned. The slices of Parisian life shown here are such that in his day might have made a respectable woman blush.

The subjects of these four studies are all female. In “The Boot-Polishing Virgin,” Zola examines the role of the mistress. The title character is a working class girl set up in a Parisian love nest by her lover, a count. Zola gives us a peek at what goes on behind the curtains in such a relationship. On the one hand, it’s a descriptive piece about a beautiful woman. On the other, it’s a commentary on class, and a bit heavy-handed one at that. In “The Old Women with Blue Eyes,” Zola confesses his fascination with little old ladies. He likes to watch their shrunken, childlike bodies walking down the street and imagine what romantic lives they might have led in their youths. His descriptions of these elderly women are about as close to poetry as Zola gets. He is deliberately provocative in the way he sexualizes these ladies—a little too provocative, to the point where it feels like forced humor. “Contrasts,” on the other hand, is simply hilarious. A tradesman named Durandean comes up with an ingenious business idea. He recruits all the ugliest women in Paris and rents them out to pretty women as a fashion accessory, to make them look even more beautiful by comparison. The lengths to which Zola analyzes ugliness and vanity (and the ugliness of vanity) is great fun. This is the kind of audacious humor which would have shocked the audiences of his day, and after more than a century it’s still good for a laugh. In “Love Under the Roof,” Zola offers a very brief sketch of the type known as the grisette. She is a working class girl who lives in a garret, supporting herself on needlework. She is pretty enough to be the kept lover of a rich man, but she chooses to be independent in hopes of one day finding true love. This character study is successful not only for the sensitive portrayal of its subject, but also for the insight it gives us into the social conditions of the era.

Overall, the quality of these four quick reads more than belies their brevity. For fans of Zola, reading these four selections is like paging through the sketchbook of a master painter. None of them would qualify as a masterpiece, but each offers a glimpse of the artist’s prodigious talents.

Stories in this collection
The Boot-Polishing Virgin 
The Old Women with Blue Eyes 
Love Under the Roof

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