Book review., Books, Crime, Detective fiction, Eugène Sue, French Literature, History, Jean-Paul Marat, La Force Prison, Les Mystères de Paris, Literary criticism, One Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade, The Mysteries of Paris
[Here are some notes on the names that are used in this article.]
Almost a thousand pages into his serialised crime novel The Mysteries of Paris (1842-3) and Eugène Sue stops to carry out a reassessment. What role remains for the traditional storyteller within an ever more stridently politicised novel? Are they in danger of being squeezed out or left behind?
This is to some extent a question of promoting the novel’s politics more effectively, but there is also an element of surveying the damage that has been so far incurred. The more corrosive and vinegary a novel’s political cargo, the more that it will eat into the aesthetic vessel that has to hold, transport, and deliver it. Sue quickly found that there was just this incompatibility between his thrilling crime novel and its incongruously earnest politics. As a means of crisply dramatising this predicament, he would invent a troubled storyteller named Bitters.
Bitters’ real name is Fortuné Gobert and he is the lone entertainment medium in the Paris prison La Force. Sue lays out in a great spread the variety of different motivations that Bitters has for telling stories to his fellow lags. He desires to earn money and win local fame, as well as ensuring that the other prisoners omit him from their cycles of fractious violence. Yet he is also minded to subtly undermine bullies and exploiters.
“He had an enormous, nearly toothless mouth.” This description relates a lot more about Bitters than simply his dental fortunes. It soon becomes apparent to us that this sentimental storyteller is “nearly toothless” overall and that he is hardly as vinegary as his nickname suggests (in the original French this is “Pique-Vinaigre”). Bitters is only ever an aspirant white lead maker and his nickname does not in fact derive from the industrial vinegar that is used in this process. On arriving at Beaugency to enlist at the white lead factory, he had found it closed down.
He instead owes his nickname to “a great wealth of irony, as well as sardonic and witty repartee.” The alert reader will have already noticed that irony and wit are mostly garnishes rather than having any more acidic application. Bitters might not be “cowardly,” as he repeatedly insists, but his courage is never anything more than a plodding stoicism. He bravely seeks work with the white lead makers, knowing full well that their “painter’s colic” will kill him within years or even months, but he greets the tyranny of the prison bullies with much the same resignation. With typical meekness, he concludes his career as a burglar by dropping out of a window and straight into the hands of a passing policeman.
His mental brilliance is rather like a single wheel, turning futilely on a stranded wagon. When Bitters tries to gull the biggest prison bully, the Skeleton, into sparing the prisoner François Germain, there is shown to be no active mental dexterity behind his silver tongue.
Stories are always being told in The Mysteries but Bitters is the only professional storyteller who is ever depicted. One might think that this would make him a fictional stand-in for Sue but he is actually painfully lacking in Sue’s ethical finesse. It would be wrong to assume that Bitters’ storytelling exerts an equivalent influence within the prison as The Mysteries had done over the whole of France. Instead, the point of La Force is that it is a society that has to scrape along without recourse to anything comparable to The Mysteries and its ambitious social leadership. We peer into the “Lions’ Den” (the name given to the courtyard at La Force) and witness storytelling raw and in the wild.
Bitters is located at the outermost periphery of The Mysteries, where the novel’s normal forces function at their weakest. Unlike with almost all of this thickly organised book’s other characters, Bitters’ story is never chased up. Still, in a novel in which the “good” characters are characteristically sappy and the “bad” ones can be instantly recognised by their bestial physiognomies, Bitters is a refreshingly complicated and even a uniquely original creation.
As with the novel’s moralistic hero, the Grand Duke Rodolphe of Gerolstein, Bitters is a character whose goodness is realistically bedevilled by flaws and frailties. His name never reaches the ear of the Grand Duke and it seems that Sue was unwilling to contrive a meeting between them. I have a feeling that the Grand Duke would be haunted by Bitters’ cynicism. Rodolphe insists upon stern self-improvement, whereas Bitters stoically accommodates his own weaknesses.
I should point out that the only resource that I am working with is The Mysteries itself. I have no backroom access, in correspondence or diaries, to whatever Sue was really trying to achieve with Bitters. But when we are left with the text alone, the meaning of this character rubs off from his failure to adequately resemble either of the two figures who he initially calls to mind. These are the real-life French revolutionary, Jean-Paul Marat, and Scheherazade, the fictional liberator of a city.
Like Marat, Bitters is a plebeian artist who is always down within the crowd, rather than being outside or above it. Bitters’ original name, Pique-Vinaigre, recalls the sharpness of Marat’s writing as well as the vinegar-soaked bandages that the revolutionary had wrapped around his inflamed skin. When we first meet Bitters, he is receiving an unfamiliar female visitor (“We haven’t seen each other for sixteen years”). This might cause us to vaguely picture that famous tableau in which a stranger, Charlotte Corday, had called in on Marat at his home to assassinate him. Marat’s spectre subsides when Bitters’ visitor turns out to be his own sister, but it wells up again when she exclaims, “Oh, my dear Fortuné, why did you choose a job that’s so dangerous that you die from it?”
Bitters’ rueful self-deprecation is a world away from the ostentatious swagger with which Marat had customarily written. In Prospectus for L’Ami du Peuple (1789), Marat had declared, in the inevitable third person, that, “M. Marat has not simply served the Fatherland with his pen, he has also served it with his person from the first instant of the revolution.” Bitters only serves others when he is telling stories. “By his virtue, his courage, his steadfastness, he has triumphed over all,” Marat had proclaimed of himself. We see little of this virtue, courage and steadfastness in Bitters, and indeed the last that we glimpse of this storyteller is of him running away: “Bitters, terrified, disappeared during the tumult. No one noticed his absence.”
Marat had been a sociologist whilst Bitters never exerts himself outside of fiction. He had, we are told, “a real talent for these kinds of heroic stories in which the weak, after endless trials, finally triumph over their persecutors.” He essentially reduces revolution to a children’s story or to a comforting fantasy, rather than making it properly stick with any realism.
Bitters had previously made “wooden sabers” for children. He could be commenting on his own fiction when confessing that, “My only resource was my skill at making children’s toys.” White lead, the product that he had been consequently planning to manufacture, was used to make the cosmetic Venetian ceruse, as well as white paint. Both have connotations of whitewashing and of avoiding exposure to disagreeable realities.
Scheherazade, the narrator of the medieval story anthology One Thousand and One Nights, had needed to spin out stories that would keep death at bay. If she ever fell silent then Shahryar, her husband, would execute not only her but, in time, all of her city’s young women. Bitters has to keep spinning out a comparable lifeline to the young prisoner Germain, who is due to be strangled by his fellow inmates. He chooses “The Runt and Chops-Him-in-Two,” a rosy tale about a friendless orphan who escapes vicious child-abuse. Like Scheherazade, Bitters repeats a story that concurs thematically with the crisis that frames it, but, unlike her, he is never totally conscious of how urgent this crisis is.
Bitters is never really a Scheherazade because the Skeleton, the chief conspirator against Germain, is never as imaginative as Shahryar. Lacking the talent to distract the Skeleton, Bitters has to settle for catching the ear of an unsuspecting guard, Old Roussel, whose departure is “supposed to give the signal for Germain to be murdered.” As Bitters’ tale lengthens, the Skeleton “could not contain his impatience and anger”:
And finally, the Skeleton had to admit, judging from the interruptions of several prisoners, they had been transported by Bitters’ story to a state of mind that was really pathetic. It might be that they would not even stand by in fierce indifference while a terrible murder took place – a murder in which their impassive behaviour was to make them complicit.
The difficulty here is that we too might struggle to connect with a story that is trite and shallowly moralistic. We will be greatly more gripped, however, by the problem of Germain’s escapology. So it is hardly as if Bitters is skilfully weaving a story that will mentally whisk us away from the prison’s uneventful surroundings. We are instead only sitting through Bitters’ mediocre fantasy because of the suspense that it generates by postponing the denouement of the altogether more thrilling frame story.
It doesn’t help that the frame story becomes a front that does not hold up. Sue cannot resist remaking the Lions’ Den into a forum for his own pamphleteering, characteristically crowding out all of the tension. The danger here is that we grow so fatigued by the wandering narrative focus that we begin to concede that the Skeleton might have a point. The Skeleton finally flings himself on the surprised Germain with a cry of joy. This is not just a cathartic release of pent-up villainy. Whether Sue likes it or not, the Skeleton has become a mouthpiece for exasperated realism. We might cheer to his protest against Bitters’ sentimentality and to the correction that he tries to deal to it.
Except that the Slasher gets there first. Bitters has been all the time unconsciously allied with Germain’s actual rescuer. Both Bitters and the Slasher spin stories to try to save Germain but Bitters does so passively, to merely buy time, whilst the Slasher tells a more enterprising lie: “I go and buy a black wig… I stuff a pillow in my back, and start playing a hunchback.” Not only does the Slasher’s story do more good than Bitters’ effort but, in featuring a frolicsome hunchback, it is also more authentically Scheherazadean.
Sue might not have planned for “The Runt and Chops-Him-in-Two” to intentionally underwhelm his readers, but it is equally the case that he would not allow himself to concoct so captivating a tale that all thought of murder would magically drop out of the Skeleton’s mind. Perhaps if Bitters had run with a genuinely thrilling Arabian Night story, then the Skeleton might have been wowed out of his villainy, just as Shahryar had been. Yet this would credit the sheer escapism of Scheherazade’s stories with being more powerful than Sue’s own limply moralistic submissions.
Bitters had never in fact shared Scheherazade’s responsibility of using storytelling to stay death’s hand. His story is ultimately an irrelevance and Germain would have been saved even if he had not gone to the trouble of telling it. We might leave the Lions’ Den feeling that we have been delayed by nothing more than the cheap fix of a moral narcotic. Bitters confesses that he wants to “make my audience happy,” whereas Sue had sought to make his own readers outraged and indignant. Still, Bitters was never free to set the tone of his stories to begin with. He explains to his sister that, “that’s what acting sad gets you in prison. All of a sudden they suspect you of something. And that’s why nobody has ever suspected me of anything.”
Bitters is equally waiting for his story “to fill up my piggy bank.” Although Edgar Allan Poe had famously scoffed of Sue that “his first, and in fact his sole object, is to make an exciting and therefore saleable book,” Sue had frogmarched his readers down into dens of vice and prostitution, which were not a guaranteed route to popularity when he had first started writing. Bitters, for his part, tells children’s stories that “even a nun could read.”
Is it really so desirable that Bitters can temporarily transform thieves and murderers into children again? Whilst it is never said so, one imagines that the prisoners so relish Bitters’ stories because they nostalgically recall them to childhood certainties and comforts. Bitters admits that, “If I told them stories where some fellow who stole or killed people in the course of stealing was squished in the end, they wouldn’t let me finish it.” So during “The Runt and Chops-Him-in-Two,” hardened criminals unwind to the dreamland justice that is meted out to a fairytale ogre, without any of the inconvenience of feeling guilty or being reminded of the real-life injustices that they are still implicated in.
There is a sly comparison being drawn here between Sue’s bourgeois readers and La Force’s cutthroats. Many of the great and the good who had endorsed Sue were naturally involved in the very organisation of society that he was protesting against. Indeed, this is already being jokingly highlighted when Bitters warms up by calling, “Here are the orchestra seats! Lords and ladies get the best seats. First, the financier….”
Yet the analogy is actually, upon further inspection, a little less strict. The most virtuous prisoner (Germain) is amongst those who pay the most (ten sous) for Bitters’ story. This rich consumer symbolically evinces the most refined appreciation of the moralistic story. There is thus a loophole left available for do-gooding members of the bourgeoisie, just as The Mysteries had never neglected to reassure its moneyed readers that “there are Rigolettes and Songbirds among the rich, too.” In the Lions’ Den, though, those who are most distant from respectable society continue to retain their own deep and instinctive feeling for justice:
These people who are corrupt right down to the marrow of their bones, these thieves and murderers, display an especially marked preference for stories containing elevated, heroic sentiments, stories in which the weak and the good are avenged for the terrible oppression they undergo.
Sue’s story is immediately advertising the uselessness of this generalisation. For example, the Skeleton is “corrupt right down to the marrow” and Bitters’ story has no discernible impact on him. An interesting importance is being nonetheless imposed upon the storytelling at La Force. The kind of stories that are told by Bitters are evidently of more practical significance to the prisoners than any traditional congregational worship. Indeed, it is implied that The Bible would be just as beneficial to them if it was entirely fictional. In this final analysis, Bitters becomes akin to a priest, in keeping the prisoners reconnected to a moral awareness that would be otherwise lost. He is increasingly the spit of the whisky priest in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940), in being ruinous and cowardly, but not, in the end, dispensable.
He could even, like the whisky priest, die. He has ominously attracted the attention of the Skeleton, who might not tolerate this pipeline of improving stories being kept in operation for much longer. Perhaps Bitters’ fate is to be anonymously martyred. Until then, he is destined for the galleys and the open sea, where he might be long telling stories and soothing lost souls whilst the Grand Duke frets, bottled-up, in his palace.