Wednesday, September 1, 2010
The Laundresses of Les Misérables
A boat owned by some laundresses, Javert's body bobs up under. At reading this at work today I think I thought something like, Oh dear! I was startled. It was just--but then I kept reading, the plot so compelled me, the plot and the beauty of young love refracted through old, lovesick eyes into prism-casts of brilliant soliloquizing (I love the grandfather).
So it's not until tonight as I am sitting peacefully in my own living room that I am all at once compelled to wonder: What?
What were two laundresses doing owning a boat? (For some reason I remember it as two.) For what? Why? What did they use it for? What were they washing clothes in the Seine from a rowboat--of course not. There were shops full of vats of boiling water and lye where they worked; this is in Zola. Nana's mother was a drunken laundress, just like I might have been in her day (and others). So what's with the boat--ladies? Naturally I find its joint ownership suggestive; even unto the extreme. A shared pleasure craft, is it? Maybe with even a small sail to flutter and double as shade and triple as cover: oh dear. Or maybe, who knows by 1832 how long they've been together: two years? Ten? Twenty? Say fifteen, and say that one of them wasn't always a laundress and that they've begun to get tired of each other. How tired? Enough that they've both got other women who if they could just get them alone in that boat on a nice day, then everything afterwards would be Fine. Doors close, windows open--whatever: it's a common way of feeling. But what happens when these two long-linked laundresses keep feeling this way at the same time? Do they start to fight about that boat? They do. Why do I need your permission to go out in our boat? Why do you want to go out in our boat? Why do I need a reason? Are you going alone? Are you telling me I need a reason? Who is she? Where are you hiding her? This manner of thing become commonplace in the home, in the workplace, by the riverside, say a small crowd, mostly muddy, has gathered to hear it again. Two laundresses, fighting over their boat, their drink-cracked voices ringing true again against the stone feet of the nearby Pont-Neuf: who notices the boat's strange humping as it's rocked from beneath, or the rope anchor's tautening at an added weight that pulls? Who and how many turn from the fight to witness the emergence of something else ghastly?
Or maybe they're just two (or some) laundresses who've got a marginally lucrative and wholly platonic sideline in carp; or they're sisters. What am I, psychic? (Although I think it would have said if they were sisters. I mean, why not? Frankly, for all I know they really were doing laundry from a boat in the Seine--because they were cut-rate amateur Parisian laundresses whose customers couldn't afford to send things to the lye-shops; and their edge on their competitors is that they've got this boat so they can take your clothes out to wash in cleaner water than the rest.)