Sunday Salon: “Paulina 1880” by Pierre-Jean Jouve
Posted January 6, 2008on:
At one point, Paulina 1880 struck me as one of those properly “French” novels about romantic love: all passion, tortured feelings, the world’s fate hung on the outcome of the couple’s affair, melodramatic yet plausible, the way only the French could manage. Not only could I merrily tag along, I could do so without wanting to murder the characters, have someone else (including themselves, suicide always being an option for this sort) do it for me. (That was my reaction to Wuthering Heights.)
It didn’t turn out to be that kind of novel really. It had more in common with The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. Both feature a deeply religious female character who engages in religious immoral behaviour and who punish themselves by ultimately rejecting that life at a moment when all is within their grasp. But Paulina Pandolfini’s end is more horrifying because she arguably deals with less societal obstacles, has a clear opportunity to solve that problem and re-enter the mainstream — a path not open to Radclyffe’s Stephen — and the frenzied repression of earthly desire in a futile effort to attain a celestial one pushes her to extreme mental instability.
Jouve tells the story in short chapters with a paragraph, sometimes a page that occasionally extends to three. He switches perspectives unannounced so that within a paragraph or even a sentence one reads both the narrator’s and Paulina’s or Count Michele Cantarini’s thoughts. This informality extends to syntax. Complete sentence structures may be deemed unnecessary and a description of a rural village is captured in brief phrases, one following the other like a picturesque list. Other times they may flow into each as Jouve often finds a comma handier than a period, particularly during Paulina’s giddy, effervescent monologues. He is obviously interested in language’s malleability and suitability for what he wants to convey. In later chapters, when Paulina seeks spiritual abandonment in a convent, her thoughts become so abstract and wholly processed through biblical allegory that they’re written as poems.
Tone is also a key element. The first chapter is a simple, methodical “inventory” of a blue room and a description of its interior design. It wouldn’t be out of place in a high end housing catalogue. Jouve enlivens the prose in the second by directly addressing the reader with a question, as if one is in the room with him noticing a shadow pass over a glass globe. Over the next few he is in a typical “story-teller” mode, describing select moments from Paulina’s childhood, with the first hint of the loosening prose in a chapter about her fascination with tortured saints. The last of the restrictions disappear in her intoxicated monologue at age 19 — still early in the book, page 22 — where she goes into raptures about her well-formed breasts, her love for God, her fascination with a doomed romantic love and, obliquely, her growing attachment to Count Cantarini, a 40 year old family friend.
All through the novel I was struck by how purposely attuned Jouve was to language’s potential and how he exploited it so perfectly from brief chapter to chapter — the shortest ones are among the most impressive and important.
Paulina is a keenly sensual, egotistical, impassioned character inclined to extremes. Raised in mid-19th century Milan in a respectable, wealthy family, it is no surprise that she is religious. But her fervent inclinations lead to adoration of saints who were martyrs, who suffered magnificently.
In churches young Paulina liked more than anything else the torments of the Saints. “I used to go to the church to watch them suffer.”
Unfortunately for her she can never quite separate her sensual and religious sensibilities. Her earnest description of a picture of St. Catherine of Siena cannot help but include observation of her “wide hips, that soft bosom under the veil, and those shoulders. I’m not the one ever to make so beautiful a spouse”. This tendency is unfortunate because, like a good Catholic, she judges such thoughts to be evil: “but one should not think in such terms of the flesh, that’s Satan’s way”. In the next chapters one is told of her habit of exaggeration, even creation of her sins, the better to feel more anguished and attain a sweeter grace in forgiveness at confession. “She cultivated” an image of “being a sinner”. Father Bubb, the Pandolfini family’s spiritual advisor, warns, “Beware of the sin of pride”. I smiled ruefully at these scenes of innocent childish ruminations, but they are really portents of Paulina’s disastrous future.
For she falls in love with the married Count Michele Cantarini as he does with her. His wife becomes ill only a few years after their marriage and regresses into an “incurable delirium”, according to her doctors, which makes her insensible to reality. That along with her cantankerous nature leads the Count to decide to have her taken care of in a separate residence. He is not religious but he is not fond of the subterfuge and suggests that they leave for France where they can live openly together. Paulina believes that their current situation is brazen enough; she will go no further. She confesses to Father Bubbo who prohibits her from taking communion then allows her to re-enter the fold in the hopes that closer contact with God will give her the spiritual fortitude to reject her current path. The two sides to Paulina — the earthly, the religious — are at odds with another, the religious currently pacified by her belief that “God permitted my love for you”. She can believe that because her love feels instinctive, true, honest, natural, inevitable. She is fated to love him and if that is so then God will not send her to hell. If they “obey” and “have confidence in God” all will turn out right.
Two occurrences change her stance on this. The first is her father’s death. She was his only daughter and youngest child among his four offspring. Father and brothers were extremely overprotective of her, particularly after the mother’s death. In Torano, where the love affair began, she was always locked into her bedroom at night and its only entrance was through her father’s room, the other one sealed off. The youngest son, Cirillo, resents her (she has a strong personality and was a favourite) and kept her under close observation. Still, she had some for love for her father and certainly held him in high regard. That he dies before she can tell him about Michele bears down on her conscience. Her indulgent habit of exaggerating her sins rears up again. It’s worsened by the fact that, of course, his death gives her “dreadful freedom”. She is now an independently wealthy women in her early 20s with her own property, somewhat free to manage her own affairs. She discerns Cirillo suspicions about her affair with Michele (thanks to her chatty maid) but cuts him off by making veiled, pointed threats about what could happen to the Pandolfinis’ reputation if he tries to interfere. She does all that, arranges assignations with Michele at a friend’s house, and mentally cultivates her guilt.
Countess Cantarini’s death eliminates the last obstacle to their happiness. Finally, they can be together. Both initially greet the news with sorrow largely comprised of guilt. One allows the guilt to grow into a tumour that blocks her sight. The tumour morphs into a spectre of the deceased Countess and then into a demon; a demon, it’s implied, that she once thought she was fated to love. Tragically, she insists on making everything more difficult.
Oh God have I come to this that I love my awful sin?…And am I also a Pandolfini, someone who has to have her sin legitimated like some country girl? I created the challenge. It’s a matter between me and my God. I remain a sinner before THEE. Strike.
It is never explicitly shown but it’s suggested here and there that society knows of “the Paulina tragedy” and the road to marriage is not as clear as one thinks. If she had simply rejected Michele’s proposal that would have been sad enough. But this creation of a demon and its imagined possession drives her to a convent, to self-mutilation, to warped self-delusions of godly grandeur as she aspires to a level of sacrifice to make make her worthy of being Jesus’ Spouse, and much worse. It’s a brutal kind of irony that her sojourn into a life of ascetic humility and abandonment of self in obeisance before God is when she ventures very close to blasphemy and increasingly, inadvertently, reveals her resentment towards Him.
in bodily suffering and especially suffering in His image, I find the means, the unique means, of dominating my miserable being, of emptying my soul, of raising it at once and hurling it at Him.
She is to live a life of strict routine and discipline but it is in her journal entries there that her words break out of their confines and scatter across the page as poems.
Paulina and the narrator often observed that she felt as if she were two persons. During the first stages of their love affair Michele glimpsed the other side to her.
your soul, Paulina, your soul is a child, it remains a savage child and it scares me…It is a magic creature I’ve tried to capture, maybe to save you and to save myself. All in vain! It isn’t in the body I see, nor in the one who speaks to me, it doesn’t even come close to us, it dreams and is ringed with peril.
Paulina 1880 is the story of how that “savage…magic creature” destroyed them both.