I’ve had a copy of The Mysteries of Paris* on my shelf for decades, with the clear intention of reading it. I suppose the pandemic gave me the opportunity to do so. I’ve had my anonymously translated and undated 1,300 + page Walter J. Black edition for long enough that it’s finally been superseded by a Penguin Classics translation from 2015.** I read the beginning of both editions to help me decide which version to go with (I’m sure as hell not going to read it twice), and ultimately chose the older one. Despite its having been thoroughly bowdlerized, with an inexact (if not simply fanciful) translation, the 19th Century sensibility and underworld argot seem more alive here than in the meticulously translated (and to me – remarkably flat) Penguin edition. Sure, some scenes have been omitted, but it’s pretty easy to tell from the context of the narrative when a rape or some other such horror represented by lacunae has occurred. Frankly, I simply enjoyed the flavor of the older edition better, and I’m reading for enjoyment.
The Mysteries of Paris began publication in a serialized form in 1842-43, and was an immediate success. It was a social novel, luridly yet humanely representing different strata of Parisian society and therefore appealing to a wide audience. It could be read in bourgeois drawing rooms, or aloud in a smoky tavern for eager listeners. It proved to be a model for later works, such as Les Miserables (which took up its examination of social issues having to do with crime and the poor, and the responsibilities of the wealthy) and The Count of Monte Christo. Sue clearly sought to use his novel as a means of putting forth aspirational views of reforming how French society views the poor, and how society approaches questions of incarceration and rehabilitation.
The cast of characters is large, but surprisingly intimate in a contrived way. As we read, we become astonished at how, in a large and crowded metropolis, the right people just happen to run into each other at the right time; for instance, in a woman’s prison, the heroine just happens to form a bond with another inmate whose lover happens to be the brother of the river pirate who will later try to drown said heroine in a hit job later in the novel. There is a remarkable trend of serendipity in this work, from the very first scene.
*Potential Spoilers Ahead*
And so – in the beginning, a mysterious man thwarts an attempted assault of a teenage streetwalker by a ruffian who goes by the name of “Slasher” (the first of many delightful sobriquets in the book). Slasher, as we should not be surprised to learn, is a fellow with a sharp knife and anger issues, but comes to have a deep respect – devotion, really – for Monsieur Rudolph, who has, to use the vernacular, kicked his ass. Incredibly, this M. Rudolph, the Slasher, and the virginal prostitute la Goualeuse (aka Fleur-de-Marie) end the evening as fast friends. From here, the novel descends into a blur of secrets, betrayals, suicides, madness, poverty, infanticide (alleged), noble actions, social polemics, and icky craven lust. We meet the Screech-Owl, a one-eyed crone who is the tormenter of dear Fleur-de-Marie and the companion of the hideously disfigured (by his own hand) Schoolmaster and other unsavory types. We take side trips to an idyllic farm run as a social experiment, and to an antebellum slave plantation in Louisiana, where the (obviously) cruel master keeps a harem of dusky maidens to serve his own perverted lusts. We meet the honest clerk Germaine, of uncertain parentage (there’s a lot of that) and the endearingly hardworking seamstress Mademoiselle Dimpleton (aka Rigolette), the desperately poor gem-cutter Morel and his family, which includes his gibberingly senile mother-in-law and his unfortunate daughter Louise, who is held captive and assaulted by the loathsome solicitor Jacques Ferrand, and we meet the proprietors of the rooming house where many of these folks live, the comical Madame Pipelet and her husband Alfred who, in characteristic ill-fitting clothing and a floppy oversized hat, is tormented to distraction by the affectionate teasing of a bohemian artiste named Cabrion, who plasters he and Alfred’s names on the walls of Paris as exemplars of inextinguishable friendship. We will also meet an epileptic nobleman who holds a gentleman’s breakfast during which he blows his own head off after his wife – who has had her father turned against her by a gold-digging stepmother who has likely poisoned her (the wife’s, that is) own mother – refuses to sleep with him due to his horrid foaming-at-the-mouth. (Apparently he stopped foaming long enough once to have sired a daughter upon her, but who the hell knows what happened to her? Wrong! It’s not Fleur-de-Marie – she’s someone else’s lost daughter, the big secret of the book that’s revealed quite casually about one-third of the way in.)
Lest you think I’ve given too much away, my friends, we’ve hardly scratched the surface. I haven’t even mentioned Cicely, the irresistibly sexy quadroon (think young Lisa Bonet) who brings about Ferrand’s downfall, driven mad with lust; her abandoned husband, the African-American David, who rose from slavery to the practice of medicine in the service of Rudolph; the Skeleton, who rules his fellow prisoners with an iron hand; a disenfranchised noblewoman and her daughter, dying helplessly of hunger in a garret as the daughter is threatened with assault; or finally the duplicitous Sarah McGregor, who pursues Rudolph (remember him?) even unto death based on an early prophecy that she would marry into nobility. And just who is this Rudolph, master of disguise? Is he a lowly clerk, or something more? Like maybe, say, a German prince? That might explain the Sarah McGregor thing.
It’s a long and raucous ride, with lots of noble actions, regretful weeping, earnest emotion, hidden love, violence, torture, assault, blinding (for his own good, really), drownings and near-drownings, partings and reunions. But after all the twists and turns and the serial cliffhangers, the wicked are punished to the appropriate degree of their repentance, monetary legacies are established to raise the poor – a few of them anyway – above the filth and violence of the Paris streets, and father and daughter are reunited for a happy ending. Well, not really: Sue sought fit to tack on an epilogue in which, despite his best efforts, Rudolph simply cannot convince his poor daughter, the delicate flower who had been debauched in the dark alleys and dim taverns of Paris, that you can unring a bell, and a fat turd of a downer is dropped on the final act, but one which might have been oddly satisfying to the weeping readers of France.
*Entitled The Works of Sue, a misnomer, as The Mysteries of Paris is the only work represented, and Sue published many other works, including an equally long novel called The Wandering Jew (1844).
** There is also a Dedalus edition, based, I believe on a different older translation. I don't believe this one is still in print.