Point of view, time, place and story

99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style by Matt Madden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a lot of fun, especially for fans (like me) of comic book art. Madden has a skillful pen (and brush and photographer's eye, because he uses various media), and is good at imitating the styles of other cartoonists he admires. The question he poses (as did Raymond Queneau, whose 1947 book Exercices de style inspired this one) is whether, by changing point of view, tense and tone, we are really telling the same story.

Like Queneau, he begins with a very simple (rather silly) anecdote: comic artist (Madden) gets up from his desk to go to the refrigerator, is interrupted by his partner's question about the time, and forgets what it was he was looking for in the refrigerator. That seems to be a story about forgetfulness. But when the point of view is that of the refrigerator, it's about the ridiculous and confused meddling of human beings with the calm mechanical life enjoyed by the 'fridge. Or if the p.o.v. is of the lady friend who asks the time, it's about the unreliability of her partner. And if it's set in the future on a space ship, it may be about the bewilderment caused by supersonic travel. And so on.

No, it no longer is the same story if, for example, the Odyssey is told from the point of view of Leopold Bloom in Dublin in 1904, instead of the weary, crafty warrior Ulysses on the sea in the far more distant past.

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Blood stained humor

L'Insurge (French Edition)L'Insurgé by Jules Vallès
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jules Vallès was a central figure in the Paris Commune of March-May 1871: popular orator, creator and editor of the most-read newspaper, Le Cri du Peuple, elected deputy and even an elected battalion commander. He remained at the barricades throughout the "Week of Blood", la Semaine Sanglante of annihilation, but survived — through a combination of lucky breaks, discreet risk-taking friends, and clever improvisations — to tell the tale. In 1886, the year of his death, he told this part of it in this fictional autobiography, published posthumously and narrated by his alter-ego "Jacques Vingtras".
We can't know how much of it he fictionalized — very little, apparently, except that "Jacques Vingtras" focuses especially on the comic and self-deprecating details, careful not to attribute to himself anything like heroism, a notion he distrusts. Thus we see "Jacques" as a battalion commander with no military aptitude or tactical sense who issues contradictory and at times nonsensical orders, a loudmouth so brash he enrages people who should be allies, and so much in a hurry all the time that he can't get his official deputy's sash on straight. In the context of an immense tragedy he describes other moments not comical but so strange that I'm sure he didn't make them up: For example, when a handful of National Guards (the Commune's defenders) are running for their lives under a fierce cannonade, they pass an old, blind beggar still begging at his accustomed spot before a now-destroyed church, and — they stop to give him coins! The old urban habits of those men survived even under such enormous stress. It is the attention to such minute detail, in the context of broad involvement in all the politics of the Commune, that makes this book invaluable for feeling and reliving the immense drama. And because Vallès/Vingtras is so unpretentious, he's good company, even if his shorthand phrases and extensive use of slang sometimes make him hard to follow.

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A context for literature

Making the News: Modernity and the Mass Press in Nineteenth-Century FranceMaking the News: Modernity and the Mass Press in Nineteenth-Century France by Jeannene M. Przyblyski
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

These ten essays tell not only about how the modern "news" paper came to be, but also how it shaped the conditions for the creation of the vast and expanding literature of 19th century France. Émile de Girardin (1802-1881) had a lot to do with both phenomena: he created the first paper which claimed to be nonpartisan (and thus called simply "La Presse"), cut the price in half (to the outrage of his competitors, one of whom challenged him to a duel for disloyal competition), and financed the publication mainly by filling the pages with advertising; he thus expanded circulation far beyond the privileged, monied élite, and gained the revenue to pay writers including Balzac, Sue, Gautier and a great many others.
Besides Girardin, a reader can learn here about Daumier's battles (through his caricatures) with Louis-Philippe and Louis Napoléon, and about such colorful journalists as Émile Pouget (1860-1931), who employed deliberately obscene and comical working-class vernacular to attack everybody in power.
What I missed was any discussion of the press during the Paris Commune (March-May, 1871), when over a score of new papers with enormous circulation flourished briefly, with editors including Jules Vallès (Le Cri du Peuple), Maxime Vuillaumine (Le Père Duchene) and Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray (author of the monumental Histoire de la Commune). There is however an essay by Przyblyski on the post-Commune manipulation of photographs and documents by Eugène Appert to contribute to the myth of the "pétroleuses", the crazed women incendiaries who supposedly created most of the destruction of Paris in the last days of the Commune — and who, if they existed at all, must have been very rare.

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