Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Inside Fireplaces

"The daylight that came in at the chimney made velvet of the soot at the back of the fireplace, and touched with blue the cold cinders." This is from Madame Bovary, which I began re-reading (in Paul de Man's English translation) Monday morning on the train. It's touch and go with me on this one: it was never a favorite although I found the carriage scene arousing. And now here I was on the train, writing this; avoiding it.

Yesterday at work I read the chapters in Les Misérables where Jean Valjean comes and takes Cosette away from Montfermeil. An 8-year old child slave, bare-legged, wearing linen rags in winter, finally rescued by a man who has escaped from the galleys--finally, successfully--precisely in order to do this. There is a fireplace at the inn kept by her evil keepers, the Thenardiers, and in the middle of the night Jean Valjean notices two pretty little mismatched shoes on the cold hearth. They belong to the two spoiled daughters of the house: it's Christmas, and the custom. He sees that Madame Thenardier has put a shiny silver coin in either shoe for her girls to find on Christmas morning. Then he spots, in the back of the hearth, something called "frightful" which is one of Cosette's shoes, of course she only has one pair, but she still has hope, made of splintering wood and stained with mud and ashes--an empty old sabot, into which he slips a gold louis. (Then he steals back to his room "like a wolf"!)

So, the fireplace in Madame Bovary is Emma Bovary: pretty to look at, all black and shiny but...eeek. Don't touch. What an illusion. This scene comes early in the book, before her marriage; having stopped by the farm where she lives with her nogoodnik father, Charles finds her sitting alone in the shaded kitchen by the fireplace, sewing. It's a warm day and he sees drops of perspiration on her shoulders. Later you learn she's read nothing but romance novels: the woman is filthy embraces waiting to happen. After her, Les Misérables comes as a relief. Still, today waiting for lunch at the food stand I found myself trying to remember which male character wore an earring: the male Thenardier? No, it was Emma's father. And it's absolutely true that when Jean Valjean spied Cosette's sabot in the shy depths of that empty hearth, I saw it against a backdrop of black velvet.

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