It’s strange how literature finds its way into other mediums. The current French film festival includes a film of Balzac’s Lost Illusions which, together with The Splendours and Miseries of Courtesans, is one of the cornerstones of the longest and one of the greatest sequences of novels, La Comedie Humaine. The great American literary critic Edmund Wilson – who was also a lot more than a critic, he wrote The Dead Sea Scrolls about just that, To the Finland Station about the lead-up to the Russian revolution and Patriotic Gore about the American Civil War – said of Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine that it gave a greater sense of the actual feeling of everyday life than any other work of fiction.
Balzac is the French Dickens with something of the same spectacular melodramatic colour: he has a riveting sense of the magnification of detail in order to conjure up a world but he also has an artistry and a massively worldly and adult sense of human glamour and sorrow that is beyond the greatest of Victorian storytellers. He has the same smoke-laden sense of the swirls and sordor of a great city but he is not a cartoonist, he is an early example of the encylopedic realist and the realism allows him to touch on subjects which should have been unspeakable. Rachel is the splendid and miserable prostitute who outshines her betters, the harlot high and low, and Lost Illusions presents us with the spectacle of a young literary boy, Lucien, beautiful and on the make, who scribbles his way to what he imagines to be stardom in a cynical Paris and finds himself the object of lust of Vautrin, the master criminal, master police chief. David Malouf said once that the shocking and sinister gay slant in Balzac is something you know is absolutely conscious on Balzac’s part.
La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy) was translated in its entirety by the Victorians and its many volumes make a visible chunk in any library. The trick with the sequence is that characters who dominate one volume – in Pere Goriot or Cousin Bette, say – will become minor figures in another novel. Forty years ago you could find this edition in any old library sometimes with uncut pages. Malouf had two copies of the whole nineteenth century set, one of which he sold to that never less than self-improving lover of books, the former premier of New South Wales and foreign minister, Bob Carr.
One of the striking things about the new film of Lost Illusions is that it not only has Gerard Depardieu slashing his way with classical panache but one of the characters is played by that French Canadian director the 32-year-old Xavier Dolan. Sometimes Dolan’s films can seem like exercises in adolescent stasis (well, fixation and being bogged down) but the best of them – the startling masterpiece of a debut I Killed My Mother and Mommy – are among the greater recent works of art in any medium, comparable to the fiction of David Foster Wallace – let’s say in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men – or that terrific verse novel Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson.
French classics are all around us at the moment and one of the most famous of them, Cyrano de Bergerac – forever associated with Depardieu’s 1990 film – has a new makeover with Peter Dinklage (the famous dwarf actor) as the guy with the gift of the gab who writes the love letters of his dumb arse mate thus winning the girl Roxanne, at one tragic remove.
It’s odd that the Dinklage film, which happens to be a musical, should more or less coincide with – in fact get ahead of – Virginia Gay’s lesbian extravaganza bit of musical theatre from the same source which was actually cancelled on the day it was set to open. Virginia Gay admits cheerfully that Cyrano is one of the great roles for the actor who plays Falstaff rather than Hamlet – one reason perhaps why it was played with such distinction by the greatest Falstaff of the twentieth century, Sir Ralph Richardson. Gay became famous for doing a Calamity Jane which was much more Ethel Merman than Doris Day (who starred in the Fifties film, all blonde pert beauty). Is Cyrano de Bergerac actually the jewel in the crown of the character actor? Certainly José Ferrer who won an Oscar for his 1950 Cyrano was no Romeo though he was a formidable Iago to Paul Robeson’s Othello.
Is it prejudiced to baulk at a dwarf Cyrano? Probably. At the same time there’s the not irrational fear that consciousness of disability and diversity becomes a storm of the merest opinionation and works to conjure up a version of the prejudice it’s supposed to dispel. Wasn’t an opera singer objecting to people donning what she called ‘yellow face’ for a production? It would be nice if it were possible for people to realise that imagining someone else’s experience is not only central to any form of drama or fiction but that this can have a natural correlative in terms of appearances?
Is it strange that Victorian Opera has been doing The Who’s Tommy with its representation of physical and sexual abuse as well as the glories of that pinball wizard bit? Funny to remember too that Ken Russell who did those extraordinary hommages to great composers in exquisite black and white at the outset of his career should have turned it into a raucous cinematic rock opera that resists the memory even though the music doesn’t.
There is the argument that the great musicals are the most operatic in the sense that the songs and speech lead the action interchangeably which is why the reputations of directors like Moss Hart are so high in the profession and why directors will tell you Phantom of the Opera and all those sung through shows are a piece of cake compared to Oklahoma! It’s interesting too, and not unrelated, when great singers simply act. The original Curly in 1943, Alfred Drake played the King in the legendary 1964 Broadway Hamlet with Richard Burton.
Eddie Perfect, who can act as well as sing, once wrote a musical about the great Shane Warne whose death shocked the world last weekend.
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