Tragedy and Melodrama

March 16, 2012

“Men play at tragedy because they do not believe in the reality of the tragedy which is actually being staged in the civilised world.”  Jose Ortega y Gasset

I just started Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and that’s a prefacing quotation. I like Krakauer’s books; they demonstrate the brilliance and tragedy inherent in everyday life. Well, not everyday life, but in real people’s lives.

But before this I had just read Tatiana de Rosnay’s The House I Loved. Her first novel, Sarah’s Key, was very well-reviewed and much loved by many readers. I hadn’t read it, but when I saw this new, third novel, I thought I should try it.

It’s an historical novel set in 1860s Paris, as Georges-Eugène Haussmann undertakes his rebuilding of the city. Our narrator, Rose Bazelet, is haunted by her memories as she stands guard in her house against the destruction of her neighbourhood.

The description was appealing to me, but the writing wasn’t. It’s exacerbated by the 1st-person narration (Rose is writing to her dead husband), but the melodramatic tone was off-putting, and some of the writing was just awkward.  “I knew, then and there, that that tall bearded man with the redoubtable chin was to become my bitterest enemy.” “This had not concerned me, as my daily life as a mother and wife had not altered. It is true that the prices at the market had soared, but our meals were still abundant. Our life was still the same. For the moment.”

And as it went on, it got worse. Finally, two pages from the end:

“There is nothing romantic about Monsieur Zola’s writing. There is nothing noble about it either. For instance, the infamous scene at the town morgue (the establishment down by the river, where you and I had never gone to despite its growing popularity for visits by the public) is no doubt the most powerful piece of writing I have ever read in my entire life. It is even more macabre than what Monsieur Poe achieved. So how, you are surely wondering, can your meek, bland Rose approve of such literature? You may well ask. There is a dark side to your Rose. Your Rose has thorns.”

What? “where you and I had never gone to”?

And the feeling of melodrama isn’t helped by the ending. Rose just never felt real to me, which is a shame, because I think there could be a great story, in that history. It feels like playing at tragedy.