This morning I am finishing up my query letter on the book. I’m going to blog a lot of my work in progress, naturally. I’ve been thinking, over the last couple weeks, about misers. To this end, I’ve been reading Moliere’s L’avare and watching Louis de Funès version of it – which is quite funny. I was interested in seeing how Funès would make it funny, as, if you go by the play’s critical interpretation, it is a play in which the unfortunate spectator is put in the grip of an unrelievedly horrible monster, the miser Harpagon. Marcel Gutwirth begins his 1961 essay on the play – perhaps the best essay in English – like this:
“L'AVARE is probably Moliere's harshest play. Scheming love suits, openly rebellious chil-dren, an unloving father, a sordid theme hardly leave our sympathies any acceptable resting-place. Harpagon, moreover, is a monster who, unlike Tartuffe, is firmly anchored to the center of the stage. No jail, not even an omniscient King can rid the unhappy family of the man who is its head. His power may wither, as it must for the comedy to end on a note of relief, but his presence cannot be so decisively expunged from the lives of those around him. When Tartuffe is dragged to jail in Orgon's stead, justice is restored in the state, as is solidarity to the once bitterly divided family. Har-pagon leaving the stage to go see his chere cassette is merely shedding his family without another thought, allowing it to find unhoped for reunion under the wing of a new father, Don Thomas d'Alburcy, as generous and loving as the real father had been mean and hateful. “
It is easy to see, from the text, Harpagon’s meanness and lack of family feeling. In the very first scene, Harpagon’s daughter, Élise, mentions to her brother that the family has changed since their mother died – and certainly one feels that the death of the mother sets the mood for the entire play, which, in some ways, plays out an Oedipal struggle between father and son that the mother no doubt suppressed. Yet as Funès’ version shows, what may be monstrous, judged from the viewpoint of bourgeois drama, can be transformed into comedy when we remember how closely comedy is connected to puppetry. Wyndham Lewis remarks, somewhere, that he constructed the characters in his novels as puppets, in order to display both their monstrosity and their inherent ludicrousness. Lewis’s novels have never been popular for that very reason – but on the stage, especially a stage that has just emerged from the people’s plays of the foire, this works very well. Even as a text, it works – a couple of nights ago, reading the scene that plays out between Valere and Harpogon after Harpagon’s treasure has been stolen, I couldn’t stop laughing. Moliere knew how funny misunderstanding is – and – this is the uncanny thing about him as a writer - how it erodes our confidence in understanding.
So my next post will be about the miser. I think I will, firstly, bring into the discussion Simmel’s essay on Geiz – avarice, and then advance to Moliere.