Friday 6 February 2015

IT'S YOU AGAIN by Lydia Syson

Coming to the end of every book I’ve written, I always find myself regretting that I’ve not had more time to get to know some of the people I’ve encountered on the way.  It’s a bit like all those unfinished or unhad or too-fleeting conversations you’re left with at the end of a good party – there are always other guests you wish you’d spent more time with, or who vanished just as someone promised to introduce you.  And you hope to run into them again.

The funny thing is how often you do.  So it has been with the Vizetelly family, who popped up last month in Michael Rosen’s Radio 3 beguiling Sunday Feature, ‘Zola in Norwood’.

This programme told the story of the French novelist’s period of exile in England in 1898-9 when he fled in cognito to escape persecution during the Dreyfus affair, and Ernest Vizetelly looked after him.  As well as a familiar South London landscape – one painted by Pisarro when he fled France to avoid fighting in the Franco-Prussian war nearly twenty years earlier - I enjoyed the voices of two actors I’ve loved since my teens – Anton Lesser (I first saw him in an unforgettable Hamlet in 1982 at the Donmar Warehouse and fifteen year olds never forget) and Harriet Walter (who stood out the same year in All’s Well That Ends Well) – not to mention the radio drama debut of the brilliant translator Sarah Ardizzone, who was also responsible for a shocking, never-before translated passage you can hear from the novel Zola wrote in London, Fecundity.  But I’m digressing already.

Reproduced from BBC website

Ernest Vizetelly was the slightly less brilliant translator and editor who took the photograph above - Zola is hard at work on the manuscript of Fecondité - and who told this story himself in a book speedily published in 1899: With Zola in England: a story of exile. (He assures readers he only undertook the task just in case circumstances prevented Zola from getting round to telling the story himself.)  His father Henry, the first publisher of Zola’s novels in English, suffered three months in prison and bankruptcy following an obscenity trial in 1889 which centred on his publication of The Soil (La Terre), branded by the solicitor-general as a work of ‘bestial obscenity’, after which Ernest took over the reins.  He brought out Zola’s later works in translation as fast as Zola could write them, editing them heavily for his own safety as he did so.  That landmark moment in the history of literary censorship is another story – summarised extremely well here and well worth exploring, not least for the light it casts on what I'm about to tell you about Ernest.

I first came across the Vizetelly family from two directions at once, and I still can’t quite work out quite what to make of the ever enterprising Ernest.  Unsurprisingly, the novels of Zola were an incredibly rich source for me while writing Liberty’s Fire, which is set during the Paris Commune of 1871. I shamelessly pillaged the extraordinarily detailed descriptions of Les Halles in The Belly of Paris, backstage life in Nana and the laundries and pawn tickets of The Assommoir, never mind the final scenes of The Debacle.  (I thoroughly recommend Colette Wilson's gripping analysis of how Zola’s novels relate to his experience of the Commune Paris and the Commune, 1871-78: the Politics of Forgetting.  As this review rightly observes, one of her book’s strengths lies in the decision to look at the clear presence of the Commune even in works that did not directly address l’année terrible.) But though these are the out-of-copyright freebies that pop up on Kindle, I quickly realised that I was best off avoiding all Vizetelly translations, senior and junior.  This is partly because of the expurgations (despite Henry’s resistance to ‘bowdlerising . . .the greatest works in English Literature' I believe he was cautious even before the disastrous trial, although I may be wrong) but mainly because they’re really not very well written.  They seem to me dashed off, dated, and fairly clunky in style.  I became slightly obsessed with tracking down the very best alternatives, which was how I discovered Mark ‘Cod’ Kurlansky’s brilliant version of The Belly of Paris and also Lydia Davis’ Madame Bovary. (And discovered this useful resource.)

But back to those Vizetellys, of whom there were many – grandfathers, uncles, brothers and cousins, newspapermen and wine connoisseurs, printers and war correspondents and even a well-known lexicographer.  This is what old Ernest looked like in 1914, when he finally published his own accounts of first the Franco-Prussian war and the Siege of Paris, and then of the Commune itself. 

Frontispiece to My Days of Adventure

How I wish I knew what he looked like in 1871.  At this point he was a seventeen-year-old junior reporter, rushing around revolutionary Paris with his father and brother, gathering material for the Illustrated London News.  He reminds me of a character from a G.A.Henty novel, politics included, and I can imagine his exploits inspiring awe in boys like Oswald Bastable - though I'm sure Noel would have had reservations.  Residents of the French capital since 1865, Ernest and his father were as talented at drawing and engraving as they were at journalism.  They were besieged during the Franco-Prussian war and dispatched their reports back to England by balloon-post, making the most of the quickly developing art of photography to send the pictures of their pictures and copy in duplicate by successive posts to be certain of delivery.  A decade later, in the book Paris in Peril (1882), father and son collaborated in a vivid portrayal of life in beleaguered France during the war, but dealt with the Commune and its terrible demise in just a few condemnatory paragraphs: ‘The reprisals were certainly terrible; but the provocation had been very great. The Commune was crushed.’

Ernest returned to the themes in 1914, publishing in separate volumes My Days ofAdventure: The Fall of France, 1870-71 and then, just after the outbreak of World War I, My Adventures in the Commune The title is misleading.  Consummate journalist as he is by then, elderly Ernest rarely clear makes the difference between his own adventures and those of others.  Although he criticises other reporters who cheerfully sent alarmist dispatches about certain events (like the destruction of the Vendôme column) before they even happened, he is pretty cagy about what he actually witnessed himself and what material he draws from other sources, let alone what those sources might be.

Engraving by Arthur Boyd Houghton
This is a boy who learned his journalistic skills and nous at the knee of a father who in his own autobiography cheerfully confessed authorship of one of the great travel hoaxes of the nineteenth century: Four months among the gold-finders in Alta California, being the Diary of an Expedition from San Francisco to the Gold Districts supposedly by J. Tyrwitt Brooks, (M.D.).  Henry Vizetelly concocted the fantastic adventures of a mythical gold-hunter in the hitherto unknown foothills of the Sierra Nevada so convincingly that he was hailed by The Times in 1849 as ‘a gentleman who knows all about it!’  After all, how many people could actually contradict him? 

Ernest’s family nickname was ‘The Eel’.  When writing about Louise Michel, probably the best known of the Communardes then and now, and famed in the political clubs held in so many churches in Paris, he is certainly slippery:

Louise Michel in the uniform of the
National Guard, Paris' citizen militia,
guardians of the Commune
‘If I remember rightly, I once heard Louise Michel speak at the club held in the church of Saint-Jacques.  I have referred previously to this so-called Red Virgin of the Commune. . .Towards the end of the Empire she began to pay attention to public questions, and expressed the most advanced political and social views. [NB ‘advanced’ is not exactly a compliment here, as you’ll see in a moment.]  At the advent of the Commune she was almost swept away by enthusiastic fervour.  I can picture her as a woman of eight-and-thirty, with an angular figure, a pale face with prominent cheekbones, a large mouth, and dark glowing eyes.  She assumed the uniform of the National Guards, participated in more than one of the sorties, and was wounded whilst assisting in the defence of the much-bombarded Fort of Issy. . .’

There’s nothing to suggest that young Ernest ever actually set eyes on either Louise Michel or three other Communardes he says frequented this particular political club.  But he’s happy to paint them in the grotesquely stereotyped terms which characterise so many such accounts by writers hostile to the Commune, borrowing the scandalous reputations of these women to colour ‘his’ adventures.  Ernest describes one woman, just as if he’d seen her,

Engraving by Arthur Boyd Houghton
‘who. . . during the Bloody Week [the week in which the Commune was brutally crushed by Government army, leaving as many as 20,000 dead on the streets of Paris]. . .went about, sword in hand, in a state of hysterical fury, which she strove to assuage by decapitating any corpses that she saw lying in the streets, and this although they were for the most part those of National Guards. At the club this creature raved frantically, her face wearing the while much the same expression as that which may be observed on the countenances of militant suffragettes when they are hurling choice imprecations at police-magistrates and others.  She was doubtless of much the same breed – the breed of the possédées de Loudun [possessed nuns made famous in a 17th century witchcraft trial] and the convulsionnaires de Saint-Médard.  Among her club-companions was a former fortune-teller who was almost as violent, and an ex-ragpicker who, perhaps, even surpassed her as a virago. This woman, called, I believe Marie Gougeard, attended the assassination of several of the hostages . . . and as the vicims fell to the ground lifeless, waved a red flag and shrieked, “Vive la Commune!”’

From The Communists of Paris, 1871: Types,
Physiognomies, Characters
 by Bertall
The working women of the Commune get a pretty bad press from Ernest throughout his narrative, though he does attempt an odd version of gallantry, insisting that the fires which raged through Paris were, contrary to rumour, mostly the work of men rather than women. The pétroleuses -  ‘hundreds of women wandering about with their little supplies of mineral oil, and setting fire to one and another place in a haphazard way, are gross exaggerations’ - he dismisses as a legend nurtured by imaginative journalists. Yet discussing a vast explosion at a cartridge factory, whose cause has never determined, he says it can’t possibly have been caused by a Government shell:  ‘It was due, probably to the carelessness of one or another of the scores of women who were employed in the works.’  Of course Ernest was hardly alone in his attitudes to women: such views were obviously widespread at the time.  But it’s a pity that a hundred years and more later, historians of the period such as Alastair Horne and Rupert Christiansen continue to trot out the most misogynistic and formulaic portraits of the Communardes without qualm or query. 

In the preface to My Adventures, Ernest assures us that he has drawn on his diaries of 1871.  There are certainly moments when the narrative comes alive and you sense he really was there.  It’s easy, for example, to picture this nimble teenager sliding through the crowds to get to the front as the Emperor-topped column in the Place Vendôme came crashing to the ground:

‘I do not remember whether my father and my brother followed me, but, eel-like, and in spite of the fact that some of the Commune’s “cavalry” rode up to hold the crowd in check, I wriggled through the throng, and at last, on a great bed of dung, I perceived the French Caesar lying prone – decapitated by his fall, and with one arm broken.’

From My Adventures in the Commune

Other stories, particularly about the final days of the Commune, also ring true.  He records meeting a plumber at the Gare Saint Lazare who is trying to get home to a wife about to give birth.  Just at that moment, they are caught in crossfire, and the shot proves fatal for this man.  He and his brother and father were on the Place de la Concorde at the moment when the arcaded façade of the Ministry of Finance collapsed in flames and they had to run for their lives, stopping only to pick up a few of the hundreds of charred and burning documents that began to rain down on the area.  I certainly drew on Ernest’s description of watching Government forces as they attacked on the Elysée Palace (used by Napoleon III to meet his mistresses) during the last ‘Bloody’ week of the Commune’s existence.  Many of the most enduring images of the Commune are photographs – barricades before the final week, ruins afterwards, but when it came to the fighting and action shots, camera technology still lagged behind the speed of the pencil.  Ernest knew how to get the images the Illustrated London News was after:

‘From the 6th floor balcony of the house in the Rue de Miromesnil where I was living with my father and my brother Arthur, one could see a part of the palace, notably the guard-house at the corner of the Faubourg Saint-Honoré and the Avenue de Marigny.  Awakened at a very early hour by the sounds of firing, we repaired to the balcony in question.  We were the only tenants in the house, the Chateaubriand family, which had left Paris before the German siege, not having returned since thern.  The sixth-floor rooms were chiefly occupied by their servants, but the concierge of the house had a key which procured us admission to some soubrette’s little chamber, whence we speedily reached the balcony.  From that point of vantage, as from the gallery of a theatre, we looked down upon an episode in the great tragedy of war.  I had brough a sketch-block with me, and resting it on the balcony railing, after taking a chair, I was able to make in all comfort a sketch of the defence of the Elysée guard house, which the soldiers were attacking.”

(You’ll notice Ernest dismissively sexualises even the absent maid whose room he invades.  Perhaps he would have done the same at the age of seventeen.  But something makes me hope not.)  On this occasion, he had plenty of time to observe the military operations, for it took quite some time.  First “the soldiers had to carry a mansion belonging to one of the Rothschilds where a considerable party of insurgents had, so to say, entrenched themselves.  Moreover, all the movements of the military were very cautious.  They glided along the house-fronts, took refuge in every recess, stole into houses and fired from garret-windows and roofs, seldome, during the whole of the street-fighting, carrying a barricade by direct assault. . . . The end of the affair came, I remember, very suddenly.  The attention of the insurgents was still directed towards the lower part of the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, whence they were being attacked, when all at once a body of troops came stealthily but rapidly along the Avenue de Marigny.  By this means the Communalists were taken in the rear and all chance of escape was cut off.  A few men who tried to resist were at once shot down.  The rest dropped their weapons and surrendered.  The same kind of thing occurred repeatedly during the street-fighting.  The insurgents were outmanoeuvred, outflanked; and even their biggest barricades, bristling with ordnance, were of no avail to them. 

‘Paris had changed since 1848.  Here and there, of course, as is the case even today, some narrow and more or less winding streets still remained, but the greater part of the city offered nothing like the same facilities for defence as had been the case in pre-Haussmanite days.’ 

In 1967, a Chichester wine merchant called Russell Purchase was interested enough in Henry Vizetelly to track down Ernest’s son Victor, who gathered together the family letters, photographs, drawings and other memorabilia so that Purchase could write a biography.  Purchase died before he could finish it, and all this material is now fills 17 boxes in the University of Sussex Library.  One day, when I have time, I may not be able to resist going to look at it so that I can meet Ernest again.  Of course what I'm really hoping for is a photograph or sketch of his adventurous seventeen-year-old self.

(You can find more background on the Paris Commune in this post I wrote last November, and you probably haven't heard the last of it yet. . .)


Joan Lennon said...

LOVE the cover of the Zola book!

Leslie Wilson said...

A fascinating account of the Commune and social attitudes to it; and of the demonisation of politically active women. The 'good ones' stayed nicely at home, of course...Equally of course, the Commune is a horror to the bourgeoisie because it was one of the outbreaks of true radicalism - and remains an inspiration to those of us who like to think how society might be, perhaps (here cynicism takes over) because it did not survive for the initial vision to be betrayed, as happens in so many revolutions.
Marvellous pictures, too! I look forward to hearing more from you on the subject