Saturday, October 3, 2009

Never a theseus

Quelle singulière destinée que celle de ces pauvres petites filles, frêles créatures offertes en sacrifice au Minotaure parisien, ce monstre bien autrement redoutable que le Minotaure antique et qui dévore chaque année les vierges par centaines sans que jamais aucun Thésée vienne à leur secours. – Gautier on le rat

In Raynar Heppenstall’s fascinating essay, Balzac’s policeman, he alludes to the fact that the man who reorganized the French secret police, Fouché, and the man who famously represented the new figure of the detective, in the first half of the 19th century, Vidocq, both had places in La comedie humain.

Heppenstall’s name does not light up anybody’s neural pathway nowadays – the shock of recognition has gone on the junkheap, and we, who hoped that the British novel would pull itself out of its realism by the skin of its teeth, sit by the waters of Babylon and weep. Heppenstall was crazy avant garde novelist in a Britain that despised avant garde novelists (Cixous accredited himm with the first nouveau roman), and he was too early to get picked up as an oddity, like Ballard.

Heppenstall was never more English than in his taste for murder. Dickens, it is said, would put such energy into his reading of the murder of Montague Tigg in Martin Chuzzlewit that it shortened his life – the tourette’s syndrome buried deep in his psyche would come out. English novelists make a fetish of excellent murders, and Henry James is not the only high art potentate to adore William Roughead. But the native murder wasn’t good enough for Heppenstall. No, he had to fetishize the French one.

As startling as a murder in Dickens is Heppenstall’s allusion to a scene that I must look up and know more about. There was, a couple of years ago, a vogue for pop philosophy history that took some central confrontation – Hume and Rousseau, Wittgenstein and Popper – and beat the stuffings out of it over a hundred and fifty some pages. This insta-coffee way with the history of philosophy makes me all snobbish inside: this is definitely not what Hegel was talking about. But the scene in Heppenstall’s essay cries out for a fiction of about one hundred fifty pages:

“Within a year or so of the publication of Les Chouans, he must inevitably have heard a fair amount about Vidocq, the four volumes of whose ghosted memoirs enjoyed a great vogue, though it appears that Balzac himself did not buy them until early I830.4 During the revolution of that year and the riots of two years later, he wrote a very great deal but none of it about police matters. In I833, we meet his first escaped convict in Ferragus, a short novel to which, the following year, were added two others, La Duchesse de Langeais and La Fille aux Yeux d'Or, making up Histoire des Treize. In Ferragus, Vidocq 'and his sleuth-hounds' (limiers) are mentioned briefly and supply useful information by way of 'le chef de la police particuliere', an expression to which I can give no real-life meaning. On Saturday, 26 April i834, Balzac dined with Vidocq at the house of the rich philanthropist, Benjamin Appert, in Neuilly. This dinner party must have been one of the most remarkable occasions in literary or perhaps any other history. Among the other guests were Alexandre Dumas, the public executioner, Sanson the younger, and the English radical Lord Durham, who was greatly interested in the guillotine and in French prisons.”

Such a répas seems faintly unreal, as though, while Balzac was writing his novels, his novels were writing his life.


Red Maistre said...

Was Raynar Heppenstall at all influenced by G.K Chesterton ? Probably an obvious question, considering he was a British Catholic,but I'm still curious nevertheless.

Roger Gathmann said...

RM, I found a fairly nice essay on Heppenstall on the Dalkey Archive page, although that won't answer your question. I assume that any Catholic novelist in the 30s would have read Belloc and Chesterton.