Thursday, July 20, 2006

Yet More On Tommy Sheridan

This is really an addendum to my previous post, which suggested that 'money wasn't everything' and that socialists, Mr Sheridan in particular, should perhaps consider other inequalities.

One nineteenth-century socialist addressed the issue directly - the novelist Emile Zola. In his wonderful novel Germinal we meet the mine director M. Hennebeau, a conscientious man who worships and desires his beautiful, cold wife - who herself has no time for him, amusing herself with a sucession of lovers. They share their house with his nephew Negrel, a young engineer.

The miners have been on strike for two months, and are starving and desperate. They have started to riot and destroy pit-head workings, although not yet 'his' pit.

The translation is an old one, by Havelock Ellis - yes, that one. I've amended it here and there. My Penguin translation, by Leonard Tancock, is better, but it's in a crate as we have the builders in.

"... he was feeling cold at the heart when a captain, who had arrived running, was shown in, and told him of the mob's march on Mirou. Almost immediately, as he was finishing his coffee, a telegram informed him that Madeleine and Crévecoeur were in their turn threatened. Then his perplexity became extreme. He was expecting the postman at two o'clock; ought he at once to ask for troops ? or would it be better to wait patiently, and not to act until he had received the directors' orders ? He went back into his study; he wished to read a report which he had asked Négrel to prepare the day before for the prefect. But he could not put his hand on it; he reflected that perhaps the young man had left it in his room, where he often wrote at night, and without taking any decision, pursued by the idea of this report, he went upstairs to look for it in the room.

As he entered, M. Hennebeau was surprised: the room had not been done, no doubt through Hippolyte's forgetfulness or laziness. There was a moist heat there, the close heat of the past night, made heavier from the mouth of the hot-air stove being left open; and he was suffocated, too, with a penetrating perfume, which he thought must be the odour of the toilet waters with which the basin was full. There was great disorder in the room--garments scattered about, damp towels thrown on the backs of chairs, the bed yawning, with a sheet drawn back and draggling on the carpet. But at first he only glanced round with an abstracted look as he went towards a table covered with papers to look for the missing report. Twice he examined the papers one by one, but it was certainly not there. Where the devil could that madcap Paul have stuffed it ?

And as M. Hennebeau went back into the middle of the room, giving a glance at each article of furniture, he noticed in the open bed a bright point which shone like a star. He approached mechanically and put out his hand. It was a little gold scent-bottle lying between two folds of the sheet. He at once recognized a scent-bottle belonging to Madame Hennebeau, the little ether bottle which was always with her. But he could not understand its presence here: how could it have got into Paul's bed? And suddenly he grew terribly pale. His wife had slept there.

"Beg your pardon, sir," murmured Hippolyte's voice through the door. "I saw you going up."

The servant entered and was thrown into consternation by the disorder.

"Lord! Why, the room is not done! So Rose has gone out, leaving all the house on my shoulders!"

M. Hennebeau had hidden the bottle in his hand and was pressing it almost to breaking.

"What do you want?"

"It's another man, sir; he has come from Crévecoeur with a letter."

"Good! Leave me alone; tell him to wait."

His wife had slept there! When he had bolted the door he opened his hand again and looked at the little bottle which had left its image in red on his flesh. Suddenly he saw and understood; this had been going on in his house for months. He recalled his old suspicion, the rustling against the doors, the naked feet at night through the silent house. Yes, it was his wife who went up to sleep there!

Falling into a chair opposite the bed, which he gazed at fixedly, he remained some minutes as though crushed. A noise aroused him; someone was knocking at the door, trying to open it. He recognized the servant's voice.

"Sir--Ah ! you are shut in, sir."

"What is it now ?"

"There seems to be a hurry; the men are breaking everything. There are two more messengers below. There are also some telegrams."

"You just leave me alone ! I am coming directly."

The idea that Hippolyte would himself have discovered the scent-bottle, had he done the room in the morning, had just frozen him. And besides, this man must know; he must have found the bed still hot with adultery twenty times over, with madame's hairs trailing on the pillow, and abominable traces staining the linen. The man kept interrupting him, and it could only be out of inquisitiveness. Perhaps he had stayed with his ear stuck to the door, excited by the debauchery of his masters.

M. Hennebeau did not move. He still gazed at the bed. His long past of suffering unrolled before him: his marriage with this woman, their immediate misunderstanding of the heart and of the flesh, the lovers whom she had had unknown to him, and the lover whom he had tolerated for ten years, as one tolerates an impure taste in a sick woman. Then came their arrival at Montsou, the mad hope of curing her, months of languor, of sleepy exile, the approach of old age which would, perhaps, at last give her back to him. Then their nephew arrived, this Paul to whom she became a mother, and to whom she spoke of her dead heart buried for ever beneath the ashes. And he, the imbecile husband, foresaw nothing; he adored this woman who was his wife, whom other men had possessed, but whom he alone could not possess ! He adored her with shameful passion, so that he would have fallen on his knees if she would but have given him the leavings of other men. Other men ! She was giving them to this boy.

The sound of a distant gong at this moment made M. Hennebeau start. He recognized it; it was struck, by his orders, when the postman arrived. He rose and spoke aloud, breaking into the flood of coarseness with which his parched throat was bursting in spite of himself.

"Ah ! I don't give a shit for their telegrams and their letters! not a ****ing bastard shit !"

Now he was carried away by rage, the need of some sewer in which to stamp down all this vileness with his heels. This woman was a slag, a whore; he sought for crude words and buffeted her image with them. The sudden idea of the marriage between Cecile and Paul, which she was arranging with so quiet a smile, completed his exasperation. There was, then, not even passion, not even jealousy at the bottom of her sensuality ? It was just a perverse pastime, a habit, a recreation taken like an favourite dessert. And he put all the responsibility on her, he regarded as almost innocent the lad at whom she had bitten in this reawakening of appetite, just as one bites at an early green fruit, stolen by the wayside. Whom would she devour, on whom would she fall, when she no longer had complaisant nephews, sufficiently practical to accept - from one of their own family - table, bed, and wife ?

There was a timid scratch at the door, and Hippolyte allowed himself to whisper through the keyhole:

"The postman, sir. And Monsieur Dansaert, too, has come back, saying that they are killing one another."

"I'm coming down, good God !"

What should he do to them? Chase them away on their return from Marchiennes, like vermin whom he would no longer have beneath his roof ? He would take a cudgel, and would tell them to carry their filth elsewhere. It was with their sighs, with their mixed breaths, that the damp warmth of this room had grown heavy; the penetrating odour which had suffocated him was the odour of musk which his wife's skin exhaled - another perverse taste, this crav8ing for strong perfume; and he seemed to feel also the heat and odour of fornication, of living adultery, in the pots which lay about, in the basins still full, in the disorder of the linen, of the furniture, of the entire room tainted with their lovemaking. The fury of impotence threw him on to the bed, which he struck with his fists, belabouring the places where he saw the imprint of their two bodies, enraged with the disordered coverlets and the crumpled sheets, soft and inert beneath his blows, as though exhausted themselves by the embraces of a long night.

But suddenly he thought he heard Hippolyte coming up again. He was arrested by shame. For a moment he stood panting, wiping his forehead, calming the bounds of his heart. Standing before a mirror he looked at his face, so changed that he did not recognize himself. Then, when he had watched it gradually grow calmer by an effort of supreme will, he went downstairs."

And within a few hours there's a rampaging mob of starved proletarians in the streets outside ! It never rains but it pours.

The wonderful thing about Zola is that good and bad are never simple stereotypes. We've spent most of the book with the suffering, starving miners, crushed by the Company - of whom M. Hennebeau is the faithful servant.

Mechanically, M. Hennebeau, who wished to look out, went up to Paul's room on the second floor: it was on the left, the best situated, for it commanded the road as far as the Company's Yards. And he stood behind the blinds overlooking the crowd. But this room had again overcome him, the toilet table sponged and in order, the cold bed with neat and well-drawn sheets. All his rage of the afternoon, that furious battle in the depths of his silent solitude, had now turned to an immense fatigue. His whole being was now like this room, grown cold, swept of the filth of the morning, returned to its habitual correctness. What was the good of a scandal ? had anything really changed in his house ? His wife had simply taken another lover; that she had chosen him in the family scarcely aggravated the fact; perhaps even it was an advantage, for she thus preserved appearances. He pitied himself when he thought of his mad jealousy. How ridiculous to have struck that bed with his fists! Since he had tolerated another man, he could certainly tolerate this one. It was only a matter of a little more contempt, that was all. A terrible bitterness was burning in his mouth, the uselessness of everything, the eternal pain of existence, shame for himself who always adored and desired this woman, even in her degradation.

Beneath the window the yells broke out with increased violence:

"Bread! bread! bread!"

"Fools !" said M. Hennebeau between his clenched teeth.

He heard them abusing him for his large salary, calling him a bloated idler, a bloody beast who stuffed himself to indigestion with good things, while the worker was dying of hunger. The women had noticed the kitchen, and there was a tempest of imprecations against the pheasant roasting there, against the sauces that irritated their empty stomachs with tempting odours. Ah ! the stinking bourgeois, they should be stuffed with champagne and truffles till their guts burst !

"Bread! bread! bread!"

"Fools !" repeated M. Hennebeau; "am I happy?"

Anger arose in him against these people who could not understand. He would willingly have made them a present of his large salary to possess their thick skins and their facility of casual, guilt-free coupling. Why could he not seat them at his table and stuff them with his pheasant, while he went to fornicate behind the hedges, to tumble the girls over, making fun of those who had been there before him! He would have given everything his education, his comfort, his luxury, his power as manager, if he could be for one day the vilest of the wretches who obeyed him, free of his flesh, enough of a blackguard to beat his wife and to take his pleasure with his neighbours' wives. And he longed also to be dying of hunger, to have an empty belly, a stomach twisted by cramps that would make his head turn with giddiness: perhaps that would have killed the eternal pain. Ah! to live like a brute, to own nothing, to roam the fields with the roughest and dirtiest haulage-girl, and to possess her !

"Bread! bread! bread!"

Then he grew angry and shouted furiously in the tumult:

"Bread! is that enough, idiots!"

He could eat, and all the same he was groaning with torment. His desolate household, his whole wounded life, choked him at the throat like a death agony. Things were not all for the best because one had bread. Who was the fool who thought earthly happiness lay in the equal division of wealth? These revolutionary dreamers might demolish society and rebuilt another society; they would not add one joy to humanity, they would not take away one pain, by cutting bread for everybody. They would even enlarge the unhappiness of the earth; they would one day make the very dogs howl with despair when they had taken them out of the tranquil satisfaction of instinct, to raise them to the unappeasable suffering of passion. No, the one good thing was not to exist, and if one existed, to be a tree, a stone, less still, a grain of sand, which cannot bleed beneath the heels of the passer-by.

And in his torment, tears swelled in M. Hennebeau's eyes, and broke in burning drops on his cheeks. The twilight was drowning the road when stones began to riddle the front of the villa. With no anger now against these starving people, only enraged by the burning wound at his heart he continued to stammer in the midst of his tears:

"Fools ! fools !"

But the cry of the belly dominated, and a roar blew like a tempest, sweeping everything before it:

"Bread! bread! bread!"


Anonymous said...

Good Lord Sir - I'll forgive you for including a lengthy quote fom a foreigner - although to be fair to the chap he could write a bit - but may I enquire whether this means there's trouble on the home front? My regiment is off to Iraq next month - and it wasn't much fun telling my guys - the TA docs are particularly unhappy, but c'est la guerre- but all I ask is that little men at home don't try to get an erection on our behalf. If you want to come with us to Basra, I'll be happy to give you the details on how to join up - we're short-staffed, surprisingly.

Laban said...

Not as far as I know (!) - inshallah Susan and I are still very much married - although these nights are really too hot for strenuous exertions - and the top of the wardrobe is dusty.

The whole Sheridan series points out that while he supports a forcible redistribution of cash, as far as rogering is concerned he seems to be one of the super-rich and should redistribute accordingly.

Good luck and God bless out there - perhaps Cherie Blair could lend a specially armoured vehicle if she's not using it for the school run. It does make me cross when we don't give our people the best kit, but I suppose all those social workers don't come cheap and one has to prioritise.

As for "standing in" for an absent warrior - that really would be the worst form.

Blog if you get a chance - there are lots of US Gulf blogs but no UK ones. And keep your head down !

(Do they need 50 year old, slightly tubby IT guys ?)