And I cannot stress this enough

jk yes I can. it's cool we can all stop stressing now

STRESS, n. In English, this word means either “pressure or tension exerted on an object” (in physics) or “mental or emotional tension resulting from life’s bullshit being way too much for you to handle” (in pretty much everything else).

It’s a shortening of distress, which English gets from Old French destresse (Modern French détresse), which comes from Latin, where the relevant verb is distringere (to stretch out), from dis- (in this case, this prefix indicates “reversal”) and stringere (to press, tighten, compress).

(If you’re wondering, this does mean stress is related to stretch, but we get the latter from Germanic origins.)

I’ve been thinking about this word for two reasons. First, because my own life has had a lot of stress (my own health crisis, plus some urgent, on-call interpreting and translating for some friends in crisis, plus a new freelance writing job with some intense deadlines). Second, because Twitter’s had a good time fucking with classic lines from books and movies by changing them to include “and I cannot stress this enough.”

But of course, memes don’t really get funny until you’ve seen them over and over again. The internet loves the Rake Effect:

Memes are the best when they’ve lost all meaning—not that they ever have a great deal of meaning to start with.

That’s about how much sense I feel like I’m making this week.

I do not have any books—Romance or romance or otherwise—to tell you about this week because for the first time since I started writing this newsletter, I did not finish reading any books this week. That’s how you know I’m overwhelmed.

(I read some long articles about the deterioration of US democracy and also about medical trauma and reproductive rights, which was a great choice for my stress level. I’m not sharing them.)

Wishing you all and also myself a less stressful week!

Insolent and obsolete

and, as usual, a lot of romance novels

SOLOIR, v. This Old French verb means “to be accustomed to, to usually do” or “to be wont to” if you feel real fancy. Soloir no longer exists in modern French, but you can still see its relatives all over the place. Modern Spanish and Italian retain soler and solere, respectively. In Spanish, you often see this verb in the phrase suele pasar, “as usually happens.”

The original Latin verb solere is the root of an interesting set of words, including modern French insolite, meaning “unusual,” and modern English insolent, meaning “rude, arrogant, disrespectful”—in other words, going against the usual, accustomed etiquette.

Modern English obsolete also shares in this root, although it is directly from Latin, which had obsolere as a verb (“to wear out, decay”), which is solere plus that squishy-as-hell prefix ob-, which means “toward” or “against” or sometimes “before,” because prefixes are whatever we want them to be.

Latin also had obsolescere. The -escere bit indicates an inceptive verb, so it’s like adding “to begin to.” So not only did Latin have a verb that meant “to usually, to be accustomed to,” it also had a verb suffix meaning “to begin to, to start to,” or “to grow, to become.” (You can see other traces of this in English: adolescent, convalesce, phosphorescent.) So the verb solescere would be “to grow accustomed to” and obsolescere is “to grow unaccustomed to.”

From there, we can get to obsolete, “no longer in use,” which is, appropriately, an accurate description of the Old French verb soloir.

This week, still recovering from surgery, I have grown accustomed to lying in bed (convalescing, but neither insolent nor, I hope, obsolete). I did not read any capital-R Romance because reading outside my native language sounded like too much work for right now, but I did read a lot of small-r romance. How else am I supposed to feel better? Here they are, in the order I read them.

  • Courier’s Run (f/f, sci-fi) by Ennis Rook Bashe. This is a novella or a novelette, a short and sweet work about two women finding love in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. I don’t read a lot of dystopia because I could just read the news instead, but this had lesbians and sci-fi ghosts in it, so it was fun. Content warnings: unethical medical experiments, violence.

  • Beginner’s Luck (m/f, contemporary) by Kate Clayborn. This book is just as gorgeous and heartfelt as the other two in the series (which I read out of order, because the Boston Public Library runs my life). Relevant to my interests, the heroine is a materials scientist who repairs scanning electron microscopes as part of her job, and then she goes home and works on renovating her old house, so she’s like a fictionalized version of my own beloved, who helped me arrange this little #bookstagram still life (my mom also helped, since I was not really in walking-down-the-stairs shape). Content warnings: a parent who struggles with addiction, abuse/negligence.

I loved Beginner’s Luck by and since I am married to a materials scientist who’s really into renovating our old house, it felt like a perfect opportunity to set up a little still life. (Also, J was very excited when I asked if we had any old hinges or door hardware lying around.) Every book in this series has been so heartfelt and gorgeous ❤️ #bookstagram #amreading #amreadingromance
September 2, 2019
  • Salt Magic, Skin Magic (m/m, historical fantasy) by Lee Welch. Oh my GOD. Why did it take me so long to get around to reading this book, which I knew was edited by the marvelous KJ Charles, and which is a queer historical fantasy, the genre niche I like best? The real answer is the same as above—the Boston Public Library runs my life—but it’s okay because I’m so glad this book came into my life this week. I spent a lot of this week in bed, in pain, occasionally in tears. Picking up this book and reading the first few chapters, creepily atmospheric and perfectly paced as they are, was the first moment since my surgery that I forgot. I thought about Thornby, fashionable young earl mysteriously unable to leave his father’s country estate, and Blake, the working-class witch who’s infiltrated the estate to investigate a curse, instead of my own physical pain. That’s magic right there. Content warnings: references to suicide, murder, blood, fantasy violence, homophobia.

  • Lord of the Last Heartbeat (m/nb, fantasy) by May Peterson. Memorable main characters, some great one-liners, a haunting opening scene in beautiful prose. I think of fantasy as either High Magic or Low Magic, and with mages/witches/sorcerers, ghosts, curses, and shapeshifters, this book is very, very High Magic—sometimes in ways that bog it down. I wanted more Rhodry and Mio and less discussion of the byzantine complexities of the curse. Still, a lot to love here, and I’m always thrilled to see more queer fantasy romance in the world. Content warnings: references to suicide, murder, blood, fantasy violence, references to off-screen infidelity, mind control, non-graphic references to transphobia/anti-effeminacy/homophobia.

  • Thirsty (m/f, contemporary) by Mia Hopkins. For a little while, I resisted this very highly recommended book because it’s first-person from the hero’s point of view, and only the hero’s point of view. When I read m/f, I’m usually in it for the heroine. But I shouldn’t have resisted—this book has a fantastic heroine in tough, determined young single mother Vanessa Velasco, and it has a sweet, quiet hero in its narrator, ex-con Salvador “Ghost” Rosas. The voice in this book is so strong. Sal is funny and incisive and trying so hard to do the right thing even though he can’t escape his old gang connections. I loved the plot about Sal trying to get back on his feet and learning to brew beer from an unlikely friend, and of course, this book is as thirsty as its title implies. The portrait of the East LA neighborhood where Sal and Vanessa live, where little old chismosas gossip and people grow hoja santa in their yards, is so vivid it’s like another character. Can’t wait to pick up the next one. Content warnings: gang violence, racism (including some racially motivated violence), references to addiction, some supporting characters are dead from addiction, grief.

  • Flowers of Luna (f/f, sci-fi) by Jennifer Linsky. The worldbuilding in this novella is so much fun: Ran Gray, the protagonist, is at fashion school on the moon. There are tons of details about all the clothes she designs, and life on the moon, where the dominant culture is a futuristic Russo-Japanese blend. Both main characters are part of the Asian diaspora, which is also the case for the author. In the future described by this book, people can “genetweak” themselves to look however they want, including staying young forever or being a furry. The romance is sweet (also, closed door) and mostly low angst until a big twist at the end. The twist wasn’t to my taste, but I did like the two characters, and I loved the sci-fi setting. Content warnings: mentions of sexism and homophobia, infidelity.

the naming of things

content warning: pregnancy loss, the author almost dying

FALLOPIAN, adj. This word, which only exists in the term “Fallopian tube(s)” as far as I know, comes to us from the 16th-century Italian anatomist Gabriello Fallopio, who first described the tubes that carry eggs from the ovaries into the uterus. Not a particularly exciting word, except that it’s the name of the thing I had excised from my body by emergency surgery this week, before the embryo stuck inside it caused it to rupture and kill me.

I don’t know all of you who read this newsletter, or what you’ve been through or might currently be going through, and it feels wrong to invade your inbox with a description of my trauma that you did not ask for or consent to, so I won’t say more.

It’s been a shit week. Let’s talk about books.

I didn’t finish anything that qualifies as capital-R Romance or small-r romance.

In the in-between moments, I read a few things that are neither Romance nor romance, namely Aliette de Bodard’s fantasy novel The House of Shattered Wings and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I listened to through Anthony Oliveira’s podcast The Devil’s Party over the course of the last year and finally reached the end of this week. Paradise Lost was great and I’m so glad to have had someone guide me through it, since I would have missed a lot otherwise. The podcast also kept me accountable (I paid the small subscription fee of $3/month), so I felt like I had to finish. Now that I’ve read it, I see the impact of Paradise Lost in so many pop culture phenomena, from Buffy to Supernatural to Meljean Brook’s brilliant series of paranormal romance novels, The Guardians—and also Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings, which stars a cast of mortals and fallen angels in a Gothic, post-apocalyptic Paris.

There’s a lot to love about The House of Shattered Wings. The setting is gorgeous, as is De Bodard’s prose. I didn’t love the plot or the characters in this as much as I did in some of her other work, especially the beautiful novella In the Vanishers’ Palace, which is a queer (f/f) retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in a magic, post-colonial, post-apocalyptic version of Vietnam. I felt closer to those characters than the ones in The House of Shattered Wings. But I’m also primed to like anything with a romance plot in it, which Vanishers’ Palace has and Shattered Wings doesn’t. Still, I’m interested enough in the world of Shattered Wings to read the rest of the trilogy.

On a totally different note, I also read Patricia Lockwood’s poetry collection Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, which is weird and hysterical and moving. Lockwood is sort of a poet laureate of twitter. If you’re a full-time internet, you might know her from her “you KICK Miette” viral tweet about her cat earlier this year

Or perhaps you remember her from the powerful poem “Rape Joke,” which went viral in 2013. (Content warning for rape, obviously.)

Anyway, here is the most Paradise Lost of the poems in this collection of Lockwood’s work, according to me and the following method I just made up:

  1. None of the poems in this collection are very much like Paradise Lost

  2. but this one is about nature, of which there is a lot in Paradise Lost

  3. and the naming of things, which also happens in Paradise Lost

  4. and the sound of both human and non-human voices, which etc etc

  5. There is a “fall” in it, and that fall affects language, though in Paradise Lost language is rendered less accurate and true by the fall, and here, well, natural dialogue grows in the woods.

(tiny note that this poem has some indented lines that don’t show up on Substack—apologies! if you really wanna know where they are, I guess you gotta buy the book!)

Natural Dialogue Grows in the Woods

Along with the poison berries,
and it’s your job in this life to spit both out,
and spit both out if you want to live. Listen
and learn to me and the woods: the Ummm
of the little crickets. The fresh and slangy
crows, who end every last word with the letter
A. Rats, say the mice in the woods, and What’s
the fuckin difference, Dad? My PawPaw
always says, says the voice inside the fruit tree.
Good ears and great ears and even uncanny
are trembling here in the woods, perked every-
where are ears for speech as it is spoke. Stiffies
of dialogue circle the trees and look for holes
in the conversation, and wait to get Red Riding
Hood as soon as she leaves the wild.
She says she never will, and stretches the word
giiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiirl so long that we all become
women during it. The woodsman lives here too,
and he stretches the word maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan
so long that we all die out before he’s done.
Death is so random, deep here in the woods.
In the woods the eternal Daaaaaamn and Gonna,
and the small exact birds saying What it is. Like
like like from morning to night, till even the night
is like the day. Nothing dwindles down to nothin.
Maaaaaaaaaaan and giiiiiiiiiiiiiiiirl flee to the woods
to forget their proper usage, and after what seems
like endless fuckin—well you know and you know
and you know what I’m saying. Know what
I’m saying and know what I mean. They fall hard
to the grass like the oldest trees and lie a while
listening, and then begin to speak, their mouths full
of the air of natural dialogue: Hopefully, hopefully,
totally, totally. Where are you from I have nowhere
to be. What are you called can I axe you a question.
Can we stay here forever. Probably, probably.
With the probly and the prolly and the loblolly pines.

Fo(u)nt of wisdom or whatever

here's what I read this week

FONT, n. This word came up in conversation this week, as in a set of typographical characters. I thought maybe it was related to fount/fountain, and that the semantic connection was inkwells and liquids, but in fact, “font”—whether you mean a set of printing press characters or a baptismal font in a church—comes from French fonte, which means cast iron, and is related to fondre (to melt, to cast) and English “foundry.” (Also the melted cheese or chocolate that you eat as part of “fondue,” which is just French for “melted.”)

When you say something or someone is “a font of wisdom,” the expression refers to a baptismal font in a church, which also might have been made of cast iron sometimes. (I’ve seen stone ones in cathedrals.) Because “font” sounds identical to “fount” in English, you sometimes also see “a fount of wisdom.” Either image makes a kind of sense, and whether you are dipping into a pool of wisdom or standing under a fall of it, we seem to think of wisdom as water.

Sometimes I try to make the individual words in these newsletters connect to the book reviews, so the whole thing feels more thematically coherent, but let’s be real, most of the time my reading doesn’t have a coherent theme. Also, today I’m writing from an airport hotel outside Paris, after driving through the mountainous Ardèche region and taking the train from Valence to the Paris airport earlier today, so my fo(u)nt of wisdom feels pretty dry.

Happily I am full up on everything else, having spent a lot of time with family and friends during this trip, including a very sweet and heartfelt wedding at a ruined chateau. (What is on theme for this newsletter is that the final ruination of this particular chateau happened during the French Revolution, when people came to knock the walls down and steal all the stones.)

I haven’t read any more capital-R Romance since finishing Les Misérables, but my edition of Les Mis did include, in its annexes, a letter from Alexandre Dumas to his son (also named Alexandre Dumas, and also a writer, for maximum confusion—but Daddy Dumas is the Count of Monte Cristo and Three Musketeers one), and it’s sort of wonderful so I wanted to quote from it.

The letter is from July 1862, and it’s private correspondence, so Dumas spends a little time talking to his son about daily life and family matters, but the bulk of the letter is about his experience of reading Les Mis. He’s clearly in the middle of the book, and not loving it:

I am on the ninth volume of it. I read one every two or three nights. It’s an arduous task. It seems to me as though I am swimming in mercury.

(J’en suis au neuvième volume. J’en lis avec peine un toutes les deux ou trois nuits. C’est un travail laborieux. Il me semble que je nage dans le mercure.) [My edition divided Les Mis into 8 volumes! I wonder what changed?]

Damn, Alex! That’s your good friend Victor you’re talking about. Remember when you helped him sneak out of Paris after Louis-Napoléon put a price on his head? Surely you have something nice to say about his magnum opus.

[Hugo’s style, of which so much is said] strikes me like a city paved with sharp stones, you feel them through the soles of your boots as you walk, and then you suffer from not only the fatigue of the distance you’ve traveled, but also the stones on which you’ve walked.

([La forme dont on parle tant chez Hugo] me fait l’effet d’une ville pavée de cailloux pointus, on les sent en marchant à travers la semelle de ses bottes et l’on a non seulement la fatigue du chemin qu’on fait, mais celle du pavé sur lequel on marche.)

Oh. Ouch!

But it’s pretty, right?

…the work of the style preoccupies you so much that you forget not only the subject of the novel, but the meaning of the sentence. The clinking of the swords, if I can say that, harms the duel.

(…le travail du style vous préoccupe au point de vous faire oublier, non seulement le sujet du roman, mais le sens de la phrase. Le cliquetis des épées, si je puis dire cela, nuit au duel.)

The last one is particularly charming because it’s such a Three-Musketeers metaphor. And in case you were wondering if it’s only Hugo’s style in Les Mis that’s bothering Dumas, there’s also a long passage complaining about “if Fantine really loves her kid so much, why does she leave her with the Thénardiers” or “if Jean Valjean is really so smart, why does he…” etc., etc. So Dumas was having trouble with the content of the plot as well.

I loved Les Mis, but I do understand what Dumas is complaining about. I was down to read one chapter of extremely detailed description of the battle of Waterloo (where, I remind you, no major characters of Les Mis appear), but then I turned the page and there was… another chapter of extremely detailed description of the battle of Waterloo. And another. And another.

Hugo is a great essayist if you’re interested in the subject he’s writing about, but if you’re in a “but what happened to Jean Valjean after he jumped over that wall?!” mood, the essays can feel a little bit like your gym teacher making you run extra laps. And if you’re being made to run extra laps, you definitely don’t want to be running them on sharp stones.

I haven’t read Les Trois Mousquetaires—perhaps a future project—but I have read Le Comte de Monte Cristo, which I bought years ago in two paperback volumes at the giftshop of the Château d’If, the famous (real) island prison outside Marseille where (fictional) Edmond Dantès was kept. I read it a decade ago during the year we lived in France, where we had wifi in our apartment but only one laptop between two people. It seems impossible to imagine that life now that I regularly carry around three different internet-connected devices (phone, laptop, ereader), but somehow we survived. When my partner was using the computer, I read Dumas, and those two volumes sustained me for quite a long time. Reading Monte Cristo doesn’t feel anything like walking on sharp cobblestones, or, say, tunneling into the next prison cell—it’s fun. Even as a person who loves nineteenth-century novels, honesty requires that I disclose that many of them are not fun, so Dumas standing the test of time is remarkable. I highly recommend Monte Cristo and also, if you happen to find yourself in Marseille, the tour of the Château d’If, where some nineteenth-century fanboys dug a hole between two prison cells to make the prison better resemble its fictional version.

In small-r romance, this week I read

The Right Swipe (m/f, both cishet, contemporary) by Alisha Rai. The Right Swipe stars online-dating-app entrepreneur Rhiannon, a brilliant and driven woman who has trouble trusting people, and retired pro football player Samson, a sweet and charismatic man who is adrift after the loss of his career and two family members, both of whom were pro football players who died of complications from CTE. Rhiannon and Samson met a few months ago for what turned out to be a one-night stand. He ghosted her—or so she thinks. They find each other again at a tech conference after Samson becomes the spokesperson for a rival dating app. Like everything else I’ve read by Alisha Rai, this book dealt with serious, emotional issues while still giving each of its protagonists a wry, distinctive voice and also being hot as hell. Rai’s books are one-click buys for me, even when they cost more than a standard ebook. This one was $9.99 and my library had a six-month wait list for it, so I splurged. Worth it.

The Doctor’s Discretion (trans m/cis m, historical) by EE Ottoman. I love a historical romance that teaches me new things. This one is set in nineteenth-century New York, already a fairly unusual setting, and has a lot of details about food and clothing. I especially appreciated the attention paid to historical medicine, since both protagonists are doctors.

Heart of the Steal (gay m/bi m, both cis, contemporary) by Avon Gale and Roan Parrish. Usually I refuse to read any romance that stars a cop or a federal agent of any kind, because yikes, but I made an exception for this book, which is about an art thief and an agent in the FBI’s Art Crimes division, a premise that is like catnip to me. This is light and fun and surprisingly domestic, considering its premise. The characters are over the top in the best way, and it’s enjoyable from beginning to end.

Small Change (het m/bi f, both cis, contemporary) by Roan Parrish. I love a messy, angry female protagonist, and tattoo artist/painter Ginger is exactly that. She’s into the guy who runs the new local sandwich shop—he’s a total cinnamon roll, as the internet would say, AKA a sweetheart—but she’s unwilling to let her guard down for him. This book is cute, but if you happen to know a painter in real life, I strongly recommend against taking that person on a date to one of those Drink & Paint nights, where they will feel either (a) diminished or insulted, like their actual professional career is something for other people to dabble in while drinking and chatting (b) pressured to perform, in public and on the spot (c) like it’s a busman’s holiday (d) all of the above. The character in the book is a good sport about it, but still.

In books that are neither Romance nor romance, I read about half of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, in an effort to catch up on books with a huge cultural impact that I’ve missed. Chandler’s prose is very good and also exactly as much about women’s legs as I expected after absorbing a lifetime of noir parodies: “The calves were beautiful, the ankles long and slim and with enough melodic line for a tone poem.” But overall, The Big Sleep is very stylish and very detached. I wouldn’t say it feels like walking on sharp stones, but it seemed so aimless that I didn’t care what I was walking on. The plot is complicated, but mysteries aren’t enough for me. I kept thinking “why should I care about these people?” and the book hasn’t answered my question, so I’m fine with not knowing the solution to the mystery.

If I could write back to Alex Dumas, I’d give him permission to put down Les Mis, too.

La rentrée (literally “re-entry,” actually “back-to-school” or a single word that means coming-home-from-summer-vacation) always feels bittersweet to me, maybe especially now that I’m not teaching. I love summer so much. Anyway, enjoy this last little bit of August before we all go refill our fonts.

Gardens and cemeteries

dictators, pastries, exiles, metro stations

NAPOLÉON, n. Here’s a word with all sorts of meanings, very different in French and English. If you say “napoleon,” you might be talking about

  • Napoléon B(u)onaparte, AKA Napoléon, AKA Napoléon le Grand, AKA Boney,* a Corsican soldier who rose up in the French military to become First Consul of France, and then, in 1804, crowned himself Emperor…

Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoléon, 1804
yeah Jacques-Louis was in my last newsletter too—I said he was a Jacobin then, so what’s he doing as Napoléon’s chief painterly propagandist? gettin himself the hell out of prison and makin that money, that’s what
  • …Boney reigned until his defeat at Waterloo in 1815. The period of French history between 1804 and 1815 is called the First Empire. If you said “what do you mean, First?”, well…

  • Louis-Napoléon, AKA Napoléon III, AKA “Napoléon le Petit” according to our boy Victor Hugo. Louis-Napoléon was Bonaparte’s nephew, and he came to power after the Revolution of 1848, which produced the Second Republic. Technically he was the first President of France. He talked a good game about democracy for a little while, which Victor Hugo liked. Then he seized power in a coup d’état in 1851, which Victor Hugo did not like. Hugo said so. Publicly. Little Napoléon here put a 25,000 price on Victor Hugo’s head. Hugo got smuggled out of Paris by some friends and then remained in exile (variously in Brussels or on the isles of Guernesey and Jersey) for the entirety of Louis-Napoléon’s reign. That lasted until 1870, but after 1852 it wasn’t the Second Republic. It was the Second Empire, since Shitty Baby Napoleon** gave up on the whole “republic” thing pretty quick. Apparently that was a family trait.

  • any old domineering asshole you meet—this goes for French and English, and you can see where it comes from

  • a gold twenty-franc coin, which, at certain moments of the 19th century, was called a napoléon. (In other moments of French history, a gold twenty-franc coin was called a louis, after, you know, all the kings)

  • a kind of cannon first used in the Second Empire

  • a boot worn by officers in the Napoleonic wars (ie, during the First Empire)

  • a card game, also called “nap,” that is supposedly like whist—all I know about whist is that sneaky characters in Balzac novels spend a lot of time playing it. I looked up the rules of whist once and barely survived the experience, but then again, I hate games (please note that I do not hate players)

  • an almond-flavored dessert that is a stack of layers of puff pastry with pastry cream in between. Depending on who you believe, this dessert is either basically the same as a millefeuille, but with almonds or almond paste in it—I have had it served to me in France like this—or it’s a different, more cake-like thing that is sometimes also called “gâteau russe” (Russian cake) in French. Nobody can agree on why this/these dessert(s) are even called napoléon—maybe it’s a reference to his 1812 campaign in Russia, or maybe it’s a corruption of the word “Neapolitan,” which used to be the name of a similar dessert. This is almost as complicated as whist/napoleon. I give up. Here is a picture of a millefeuille that has no pretensions of ever crowning itself emperor:

Anyway, I wrote part of this newsletter from Paris, where I did not carry any of my unconscious loved ones through the sewers, or even force them to attend (while conscious) an official tour of the sewers of Paris. But only because the official tour is closed for renovations until 2020.

Both Napoléons are all over this city, and in a way, they’re all over Les Mis, which I finished reading on the plane ride here. Lesser Napoléon doesn’t get a mention by name in the text, but Hugo published Les Mis in 1862, when he was in exile for “caring about democracy” and other terrible crimes. Every passage of Les Mis that’s about rising up against tyranny is pretty much elbowing the reader in the side and stage-whispering “like Napoléon III, get it?”

Victor Hugo came back to France on September 5, 1870, ending his nineteen-year exile right after Louis-Napoléon’s surrender to the Prussians on September 4, which is also the date that France’s Third Republic began. Paris has both an “Avenue du 4 Septembre” and under that street, a metro station called “Quatre-Septembre,” commemorating this moment. Louis-Napoléon, bye.

Victor Hugo has his own metro station, located under Place Victor Hugo in the 16th arrondissement, and he’s dead so he doesn’t know or care, but we can all be smug about it on his behalf.

*”Boney” was an insulting nickname given to Napoléon Bonaparte by British soldiers, OR, if you were a child in the 90s, it was a horrifying dinosaur skeleton puppet on the short-lived TV show Weinerville that used to sing “I’m Boney, I’m Boney, leave me alone-y!”, which is a true fact that makes me feel detached from reality when I describe it. Anyway, “Boney” is an excellent word, so credit where credit is due, but don’t mistake my usage of the word as support for the British fucking Empire. They were right about Boney for the wrong reasons, they installed a garbage monarchy in France immediately post-Waterloo, and they generally fucked up the world in a huge way. I feel perfectly fine about hating all parties involved here. Even the puppet.
**For the record, original flavor Napoléon was also an asshole dictator. In addition to being like “lol no” at the idea of free and fair elections plus invading and violently conquering huge swaths of the world, Uncle Boney re-established slavery in 1802.*** I think we can all agree that’s a real dick move.
***The Revolutionary government had passed a well-intentioned but complicated and ineffectual**** series of abolition acts in 1793-4.
****Not that it’s bad that the First Republic/Revolutionary government wanted to abolish slavery—they were way ahead of the United States on that one, yikes—but we gotta mention that Haiti was already like “hey, fuck you” and started their own revolution in 1791.

In Capital-R Romance this week, as I mentioned above, I finished Les Mis at last. Just before the end, I got worried.

Marius had miraculously survived, his stuffy old grandfather M. Gillenormand had at last approved of his marriage to Cosette, and Jean Valjean had suddenly announced that Cosette had a fortune of six hundred thousand francs. A different writer might have called it happily ever after at that point, but lest we forget, this book is called Les Misérables.

Hugo goes to great lengths to describe the potential happy ending, so it feels easily within reach. You know exactly what it would look like. Happily married and living with M. Gillenormand, Marius and Cosette offer a place to Jean Valjean at the house. Come and live with us as a family, they say. We can sit in the garden and look at the azaleas. Cosette’s description of the garden at this point is so lavish that it made me look back on all the previous descriptions of gardens in the novel, and reflect that almost everything good that happens in Les Mis happens in a garden.

When Jean Valjean and young Cosette are fleeing pursuit by Javert, they climb a wall and end up in a convent garden, where they are given shelter by M. Fauchelevent, a man whose life Jean Valjean once saved, who has gone on to become a gardener. Marius and Cosette fall in love in the Jardin du Luxembourg, then develop their feelings in secret nightly meetings in the garden behind the house in Rue Plumet. Gavroche witnesses a criminal associate rob Jean Valjean in a garden, and is then able to steal from his fellow thief in order to drop the money at the feet of the indigent eighty-something-year-old M. Mabeuf like a gift from heaven (M. Mabeuf doesn’t take it, but still).

And then at the end, Marius and Cosette try to entice Jean Valjean to live happily and be a family with them by telling him all about the lovely garden at their house.

Jean Valjean can’t accept it. He still feels burdened by his criminal past, dogged by the fear that one day he will ruin everything for them. Since I am also in the middle of Paradise Lost (through Anthony Oliveira’s excellent podcast The Devil’s Party), it is impossible not to think of this story in terms of that one. (Hugo had definitely read Milton, who is mentioned in Les Mis at least once, if I recall correctly.)

Jean Valjean, as a convict, is someone who has been cast out of the garden. He cannot go back in. He works his whole life in order for Cosette to be allowed entry—into society, into wealth, into family, into the kind of home that has a garden with azaleas and nightingales—and once she has it, he no longer knows what to do with himself. Cosette is frequently compared to an angel and described in terms of purity and innocence. She is the only thing he has ever loved, but once she makes it into Eden, every moment Jean Valjean hangs around her is a moment that he might taint her happiness with his fallen nature.

Jean Valjean makes a partial confession to Marius—not “btw I saved your life by carrying your unconscious body through the sewers, ur welcome,” just “I’m a former convict.” Marius is shocked and falsely concludes that Jean Valjean has stolen the six hundred thousand francs that comprise Cosette’s fortune and also murdered Inspector Javert. He thus supports Jean Valjean’s decision to distance himself from Cosette.

Jean Valjean is eighty by this point, and losing Cosette diminishes him and leaves him near death. He doesn’t tell Marius or Cosette what’s happening.

Instead, Thénardier, irredeemable criminal antagonist of the novel, shows up on Marius’s doorstep intending to blackmail him with the knowledge that Cosette’s father is the infamous escaped convict Jean Valjean—a thief and a murderer!

Duh, says Marius. He killed Javert and stole this whole fortune.

What follows is a scene that feels like the moment in a detective story when the detective explains what really happened, except at first, it’s piece-of-shit abuser Thénardier explaining to Marius that no, actually, Javert killed himself and here’s the newspaper article that proves it, and also here’s another article that proves the fortune was earned legitimately, at the factory Jean Valjean used to run.

Oh, says Marius. So what did you mean about him being a murderer and a thief, then?

I saw him carry a dead body through the sewers, and he had obviously robbed the guy first, Thénardier says. Here’s a scrap of cloth from the dead guy’s coat.

Marius recognizes the bloodstained piece of cloth. It’s from his own coat! (This left me no more incredulous than the sewer inspector recognizing a scrap of cloth from the shroud of Marat after it had rotted for twenty years in the sewers of Paris, as discussed last week. Lotta meaningful scraps of fabric in Les Mis.)

So now we have the reverse Detective-Explains-It-All scene, because Marius knows Thénardier’s second explanation is wrong. All this time, Marius has been wondering who saved his life at the barricade, and now he knows it was his own father-in-law.

He deals with Thénardier quickly, gets Cosette, and they rush to find Jean Valjean.

Naturally, he’s dying.

The truth comes to light in full, they all confess their feelings to each other, and it’s very moving.

Cosette starts talking about the garden again.

Just as it was impossible for me not to think about Paradise Lost while reading Les Mis, it’s also impossible not to think of Voltaire, who is mentioned by name in the text frequently, usually as a kind of shorthand for the whole Enlightenment. You know, atheism, democracy, revolution, all the most shocking things.

In Candide, Voltaire concludes the text—a satire that heaps misfortune after misfortune upon its protagonists—with the single most famous mention of a garden in all of French literature. The world sucks and bad shit happens to good people for no reason, and what can you do about it? Il faut cultiver notre jardin. We must cultivate our garden.

(“I take this inchworm, for instance, and move it from here to there,” wrote Charles Wright.)

Whole libraries have been written about what it means to cultivate your garden—is it a retreat from the world or an incitement to engage? Could it be both? Probably. Ambiguity is the hallmark of literature, as one of my professors once said.

Jean Valjean, after suffering a lifetime of misfortunes that would be Candide-esque if they weren’t so tragic, agrees that Cosette’s garden sounds lovely. But he’s not headed that direction anymore. It’s too late.

Instead, he asks to be buried under a stone with no name on it, and says he would be pleased if Cosette would visit it occasionally. Marius and Cosette promise to fulfill his last wish. Jean Valjean’s gravestone becomes its own kind of garden, planted in the grass, covered by moss, and washed with rain.

Victor Hugo, I learned from reading the very flattering biography attached to my copy of Les Mis, was not one of these men who writes movingly about society and the human condition and then turns out to be a real piece of shit, personally. (Lookin at you, Jean-Jacques “abandoned my own children at an orphanage” Rousseau, and also you, Charles “tried to have my wife and the mother of my children committed to an asylum so I could marry an 18-year-old” Dickens.)

I already knew that Hugo loved his children, since one of his most famous poems is the very sad “Demain, dès l’aube” (“Tomorrow at Dawn”) about visiting his daughter’s grave and leaving a bouquet of green holly and blooming heather there. Jean Valjean’s request that his daughter visit his grave is even sadder in light of Hugo’s own loss.

So anyway, admittedly, loving your children is a low bar, but as we see from Rousseau’s example, not everybody clears it.

Victor Hugo really seems to have walked the walk, in addition to talking the talk on progress. He had an important political career in addition to his writing, and he fought for universal suffrage, workers’ rights, freedom of the press, preserving historical monuments, and, of course, eliminating poverty, which he felt was the question remaining for society, now that they’d figured out the whole “republics, not monarchies” thing for certain. He wrote some very hopeful stuff about how the twentieth century would eradicate poverty, among other ills. Sorry we failed you, Victor Hugo. We’re still not great at the whole “everybody gets to vote” part, either.

Back to his personal life: Hugo was married, but he had mistresses. (His wife also had an affair with the writer and critic Sainte-Beuve, which I think was very equal-opportunity of her.) He also frequented sex workers (and boy do I mean frequented—Hugo kept notes, and they are copious). He had money set aside for this in his monthly budget, chastely noted as “dons aux pauvres” (gifts to the poor). There’s… something to be said about that, or a lot of somethings, but I’m gonna leave it be for now. Except that you should all know that when Hugo died, the sex workers of Paris wore black and provided their services for free, in tribute to him. For real.

Hugo didn’t ask for that. He also didn’t want a grand funeral, or even a marked grave—sound familiar? He left fifty thousand francs to the poor when he died, and he asked to be buried as the poor were buried. The latter wish was not respected. All of Paris shut down when he died, millions of people mourned him, and his remains are in the Panthéon along with the other luminaries of French history.

It’s not an unmarked grave, but you could visit it, if you wanted. I don’t think you’re allowed to leave bouquets of green holly and heather inside the Panthéon, though. You might be able to leave some at the metro station named after him. Hugo didn’t want monuments, but I like to think he’d like that one—it’s an integral part of the city that he loved, for use by its people, rich and poor.

It’s after midnight in France so I’m gonna save my small-r romance novel notes/recommendations/thoughts for next time.

By the way, should you ever have a comment or a question about one of these newsletters, feel free to reply to the email or get in touch with me on twitter.

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