Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Gaboriau Excels in Introductions

Caught in the Net has a bewildering multitude of characters from petty criminals and servants to wealthy merchants and members of the aristocracy - all of them thrashing around in a net of intrigue like so many plump fish ready to be gutted by M. Mascarin for his own enrichment. The novel cuts through all the layers of Parisian society and moves from the palaces of the rich to the abandoned warehouses used to train child-beggars. The setting is the whole of Paris and all its social classes. The title of the two volumes, The Slaves of Paris, reflects both the extent of Mascarin's machinations and the idea that the city of Paris turns all those who stray within its sphere into slaves to its commercial and financial system. Everyone in the novel is struggling to make (ever more) money, Mascarin included. He too, I would suggest, is a slave of Paris and caught in its net.

Gaboriau introduces his many characters in two ways: the main characters are given a quick but individual and memorable character sketch, like the ones of Rose Pigoreau, Paul Violaine and Daddy Tantaine I have already quoted; a similar word portrait is presented for each character who enters the action of the novel. But some, like Flavia, Duke de Champdoce, Mademoiselle du Mussidan and Catenac are first mentioned only by name in conversations of the other characters. This name-dropping has two effects: first, we are immediately interested by the role these characters will play in the narrative, and secondly we get a sense of a wider, populated world existing inside the narrative. The cliff-hanger at the end of the first chapter is an example of this: Daddy Tantaine, after getting a report from Toto Chupin about Rose's movements, says to himself: "All the improbabilities have turned to certainties, and matters are going straight. Won't Flavia be awfully pleased?" (Caught in the Net, Chapter 1). We have no idea who Flavia is or why she should be pleased by Rose making an assignation with a "young swell."  But we want to read on to find out.

Both of these techniques of bringing characters into the narrative: word-portraits and name-dropping, are effective. The name-dropping creates a sense of anticipation, and the distinctive word-portraits are vital in a tale with this many characters. It might be interesting to compare Gaboriau with Charles Dickens in this respect. Dickens, of course, is famous for his ability to create memorable characters with very few lines.

Gaboriau has some of this skill too. Here is Dr Hortebise, one of Mascarin's partners-in-crime:

"Dr. Hortebise ... was about fifty-six years of age, but he carried his years so well, that he always passed for forty-nine. He had a heavy pair of red, sensual-looking lips, his hair was untinted by gray, and his eyes still lustrous. A man who moved in the best society, eloquent in manner, a brilliant conversationalist, and vivid in his perceptions, he concealed under the veil of good-humoured sarcasm the utmost cynicism of mind. He was very popular and much sought after. He had but few faults, but quite a catalogue of appalling vices." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 3).

And here is one their prospective victims, Sabine, Mademoiselle de Mussidan:

"Sabine was very beautiful, but hers was a different style of beauty from that of Rose, whoe ripe, sensuous charms were fitted to captivate the admiration of the voluptuary, while Sabine was of the most refined and ethereal character. Rose fettered the body with earthly trammels, Sabine drew the soul heavenward. Her beauty was not of the kind that dazzles, for the air of proud reserve which she threw over it, in some slight measure obscured its brilliance.
            She might have passed unnoticed, like the work of a great master's brush hanging neglected over the altar of a village church; but when the eye had once fathomed the hidden beauty, it never ceased to gaze on it with admiration. She had a broad forehead, covered with a wealth of chestnut hair, soft, lustrous eyes, and an exquisitely chiselled mouth." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 9).

In both descriptions the emphasis is not on what the character looks like; Sabine's chestnut hair and chiselled mouth are almost an afterthought at the end of her portrait. Rather, what is important in these portraits is the impression the character makes: how he or she is perceived and whether that perception is correct. Two points are worth noting about this: first, the characters are described in terms of their interactions with other characters (and readers): moving in high society, good conversationalist, proud reserve, might pass unnoticed. Secondly, the descriptions almost invariably hint that there is more to each character than meets the eye. They all have hidden faults, weaknesses, desires and beauty. As a result, the characters Gaboriau creates have depth and potential to engage our sympathies. In this way, Gaboriau breaths life into stereotypes of traditional melodrama (innocent heroines, gallant heroes and dastardly villains).

Talking about villains, M. Baptiste Mascarin ...

"... was an elderly man, with an unmistakable legal air about him. He was dressed in a quilted dressing-gown, fur-lined shoes, and had on his head an embroidered cap, most likely the work of the hands of some one dear to him. He wore a white cravat, and his sight compelled him to use coloured glasses." (Caught in the Net , Chapter 2).

Mascarin is described in benevolent terms: he appears trustworthy and wise ("legal air") and domesticated ("dressing-gown"), he cannot be evil if "some one dear to him" has gone through the trouble of making him a cap, and he wears it! This description differs from the other ones I have quoted, because in the case of Mascarin, we do not see underneath the surface. We see exactly what Mascarin wants us to see. We are not told what kind of an impression Mascarin makes, we simply get an impression. Mascarin is so masterfully devious that even the narrator cannot see beyond the image Mascarin wants to project..

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