Friday, January 26, 2007

Eugene Sue and The Mysteries of Paris

"Our sole hope is that we will draw the attention of thinkers and of honest folk to some of the great afflictions of society." -- Eugene Sue.

Novelist Eugene Sue was born on this day in 1804 in Paris. The son of a successful surgeon in Napoleon's army and godson of the future Empress Josephine, Sue originally studied medicine and served as a surgeon in the French navy during the 1820s. After the death of his father, Sue took his inheritance and moved to Paris, devoting himself to womanizing, spending lavishly, and writing. His earliest published works were adventure novels with maritime settings (including Atar-Gull, 1831, and Le Salamandre, 1832), leading him to be praised as "the French James Fenimore Cooper." To put that in perspective, we must remember that at the time Cooper was one of America's best known adventure novelists -- although critical opinion about him was not necessarily uniform. As Mark Twain once observed: "In one place in Deerslayer, and in the restricted space of two thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record."

In any event, following these successes, Eugene Sue showed his capacity for adapting to the prevailing literary tastes of his time, turning his hand to historical novels (such as Latreaumont, 1838) and eventually to the serial romance -- of which his serial autobiographical novel, Arthur, 1837-9, was an early precursor. His popularity growing, with the publication of the widely-read romance Mathilde (1841), Sue became the most successful serial-novelist in France, getting paid by the line for works of high melodrama appearing in installments in the newspapers.

In the 1840s, under the influence of his friend, the Socialist playwright Felix Pyat, Sue became deeply interested in the problems of economic injustice. The subject matter of his serials quickly turned from tales of the aristocracy to the lower classes, resulting in Sue's most famous work, The Mysteries of Paris (published as a serial in 1842): an enormously popular, vividly drawn picture of the Paris slums, it focused on the activities of a highly-principled, almost super-human avenging angel, Rodolphe, a wealthy German prince disguised as a common workman who dispensed rough justice to evil men who tormented the poor and socially disadvantaged.

His next best-selling novel, The Wandering Jew (1844-45; filmed in 1933, starring Conrad Veidt), was based on the legend of the Jewish cobbler who was condemned by Christ to wander throughout eternity for having refused to give him water on his journey to Golgotha, again explored the persecution of the poor.

In 1850, Sue won election to the National Assembly as a Socialist, but showed no stomach for public debate and was widely criticized for proofing the galleys of his novels while sitting in the Assembly chambers. After the 1851 coup d'etat which resulted in Louis Napoleon's accession to power, Sue left France for Savoy, dying in exile there on August 3, 1857.

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