Need help with sleep – read Balzac

Rodin's rendition of Balzac, 1897

Rodin’s rendition of Balzac, 1897 (click on images to view larger version)

Both in France and in the United States, we seem to be in the worst of the COVID-19 problem now. There are shortages of equipment, rising numbers of deaths and infected, new outbreaks, and no quick fix on the horizon. We continue to be inundated with non-stop news, most of it bad. I’ve discovered that when you need help with sleep, read Balzac!

In France we are hunkered down, except to go outside by ourselves for exercise or to buy food. Still, I don’t sleep so well with all the things beyond my control. It’s not because there is too much noise in the neighborhood. I have dreams about situations that make no sense, problems that can’t be solved. I wake up when it gets too difficult.

Scientists don’t really know why we dream, but one interpretation is that, unlike focused activity like hammering a nail, dreams represent a supremely unfocused state in which our brains make broad, unfocused connections guided by our emotions. If there’s only one strong emotion, the dream is more straightforward, but if there are several conflicting emotions, dreams can be complicated. Dreams are thought to be a way that new material can be woven into our conscious thinking, providing compensation for our waking, perhaps unconscious, problems. I think there is a coronavirus restlessness that comes to bed with me every night. There have been other times like these.

Shakespear's Globe Theatre

London’s Thames River, Millenium Bridge, Tate Modern on the far shore, restored Globe theater on left (click on photos to see larger version)

From 1348 to 1665 the Black Plague struck London every 20 years or so. Bubonic plague was a disease spread by the bites of fleas from black rats. One of these epidemics struck London in 1604, and they ordered social distancing. Houses with infected people had to hang a bale of straw on a pole for 40 days to warn others. They had a special bell to ring when transporting the dead through the streets to mass graves. There was much suffering with poor treatment options and no known cures, but also there was unexpected good. All the London theaters were closed, and William Shakespeare used his time in lockdown to write Macbeth and King Lear. No wonder that Shakespeare turned to writing tragedies while he was in isolation. Here’s a little background on King Lear.

King Lear

State of the rebuilt Globe Theater

Stage of the rebuilt Globe Theater

In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the King announces to his three daughters that he’s giving up his kingdom and will award it to the one who loves him the most. The first two daughters praise him effusively, and are each awarded a share. The third daughter states that she loves him and that the award of his kingdom will make her love neither more nor less. She is disinherited. A complex story follows, but let it suffice to say that the first two daughters consider the king a fool. Each with her husband sets about trying to take all the power and money for herself. Only the third daughter has true love for her father. The first daughter kills the second, then commits suicide when her betrayal is discovered. The third daughter dies trying to save her father. The King dies of his heartbreak because he loses everything he values.

Le Père Goriot

rue Tournefort

Looking towards the Pantheon on Rue Tournefort, the neighborhood of Le Père Goriot

When I can’t sleep I’ve been reading Le Père Goriot, a novel by Honoré de Balzac, one of France’s greatest writers. Le Père Goriot is similar in many ways to King Lear. Two daughters take advantage of their father’s love and drive him to financial ruin, all to keep up appearances and improve their social status in the post-Napoleonic Paris of two hundred years ago, when King Louis XVIII (whose brother Louis XVI was beheaded in the Revolution) was brought back to the throne in a constitutional monarchy. It was the first time in France that lower classes had a chance to gain wealth and power and move up in social status.

Our protagonist, a young student named Rastignac, is trying to figure out how to get ahead in his life. He lives with a number of other characters in the run-down pension Vauquer near today’s Pantheon on rue Neuve Saint Genevieve. Today rue Neuve Saint Genevieve is known as rue Tournefort. The steeply sloping part where the house would have been has become rue Lhomond. Balzac’s descriptions of the shoddiness of the pension are legendary. There Rastignac meets Le Père Goriot, a retired vermicellier (pasta maker) whom everyone thinks is a dolt, and also a gregarious man named Vautrin, who seems to know everything about everyone. The ladies boarding at the pension all seem to like him. He pays the servants to let him come and go furtively in the night.

 houses on the hill rue Lhomond

Old houses on the hill rue Lhomond near the fictional Maison Vauquer

At first the women in the pension try to attract Le Père Goriot, since he seems to have lots of money, but he ignores them. They think he pays for two beautiful women who stop by his room from time to time. It turns out these are his daughters, who only come to visit him when they need money. As he runs out of money, he keeps moving into cheaper and cheaper rooms in the pension. Everyone at the pension makes fun of him, but he seems not to notice.

Rastignac has a distant cousin, Madame de Beauséant, who lives in the district Faubourg Saint Germain (the neighborhood on the other side of Invalides from ours). She is wealthy and belongs to that part of society that Rastignac wants to enter. She arranges an invitation for him to attend a ball, and there he meets a beautiful young woman, Madame de Restaud, whom he vows to see again. When he comes home that night, full of hope for his future, he hears his neighbor, Le Père Goriot, working away in his room. Peering through the keyhole, Rastignac sees Goriot winding silver around a sculpted piece with great skill, all the time muttering about his poor child. Rastignac is impressed and realizes that he and others have greatly underestimated Le Père Goriot.

Rastignac goes to visit Madame de Restaud (Anastasie, a countess) at her house on Rue du Helder, east of the Paris Opera. He walks, muddying his boots along the way. The countess isn’t expecting him, and she makes him wait. While waiting he unexpectedly sees Le Père Goriot departing via the servant’s entrance. He meets another young man, beautifully attired, named Maxime de Trailles. He turns out to be Madame de Restaud’s lover. Then he meets Count de Restaud, her husband. They exchange pleasantries. When Rastignac mentions that he knows Le Père Goriot, the others become angry. He is shown the door. The Count informs the servants to never again present him at their home.

Rastignac realizes he needs to up his game. He visits his cousin Madame de Beauséant for advice. She says that to succeed he will need to have a hard heart, to never show his emotions, to guard against ever letting a woman know he loves her. The way to get the attention of Anastasie is to become companion to her sister, Delphine, wife of Baron de Nucingen. Delphine is unhappy and trying to attract attention. The two sisters are rivals and enemies. Despite her cold blooded advice, secretly Madame de Beauséant has a broken heart because her lover, a marquis, is leaving her to marry another woman.

Rastignac writes his mother and his sisters, asking to borrow money, which they send to him even though they are poor. He buys beautiful clothes to fit in with his newfound lifestyle. He meets Delphine at a ball. She is troubled and in debt, so he risks his money at a casino and wins enough to pay what she owes. She loves him. They date, for lack of a better word. Time passes, and she becomes more critical of him. He loses money gambling and is almost out of funds. He is in at the end of his wits.

One night at dinner, Vautrin approaches him with advice. First, he needs to be hard hearted, but also that this pursuit is fruitless. He suggests a more lucrative approach. There is another resident at the pension, Victorine Tallefer, whose father has millions, but who denies it all to her in favor of her brother. She is in despair because of her poverty. Vautrin proposes that he arrange to have the brother killed in a duel, thus the father’s fortune will pass to Victorine. Rastignac could move in and instantly become part of the fortune. Vautrin desires to make a contract that would pay him two hundred thousand francs for his services, a small price for Rastignac to achieve everything he wants.

The moral contradiction is too much for Rastignac, and he declines. Still he cozies up to Victorine, who seems to like him. That night at dinner, Vautrin offers some wine to both Rastignac and Le Père Goriot, who has also become Rastignac’s confident. He has spiked the wine with something, and they both fall asleep. When they awaken, they find out that someone killed Victorine’s brother in a duel, and that she has departed to be with her father.

Another man and woman living at the pension, who seem to be amorous, meet secretly with a police detective in the Jardin de Plantes. The detective says that he thinks Vautrin is a wanted criminal who has escaped from prison. There is a substantial reward for his capture. He gives them a potion to slip into Vautrin’s drink. It will put him to sleep so they can identify if he has the prison tattoo on his arm. They drug Vautrin and discover that he is indeed this criminal. The police arrest Vautrin and lead him away. Others at the pension condemn the couple for denouncing him and force them to leave. The landlord, Madame Vauquer, bemoans her loss as her tenants depart for new apartments.

Le Père Goriot tells Rastignac that in spite of appearances, his daughter Delphine loves him dearly. Goriot has purchased for them a flat where they can get away together. Delphine sends him a love letter promising a bright future. Rastignac meets her at the new place, and sees that all is as arranged, though Delphine will continue to live with the Baron and only visit from time to time. Anastasie has come to her father with a sorrowful tale of the debts of her lover, which her husband insists that she pay. Le Père Goriot gives her his nearly exhausted funds to pay her debts.

Meanwhile Madame de Beauséant has invited everyone to a grand ball at her mansion. Her secret plan is to leave Paris and escape her failed love life, never to return. Both of Le Père Goriot’s daughters will be there. He has given up the last of his funds to buy a dress for Delphine. Anastasie will wear her husband’s family diamonds for the last time, since she has promised them to pay the gambling debts of her lover. Le Père Goriot, realizing he has nothing left to offer his daughters, has a stroke and is dying in his room. He is crazy, both expressing love for his daughters and remorse at the heartless way they have treated him. Rastignac remains behind to tend to Le Père Goriot with another tenant, a medical student.

Rastignac reaches out repeatedly for the daughters to come to the side of their dying father, but neither responds. He receives a menacing note from Delphine that he better accompany her to the ball or else. Finally he goes, and it is a grand affair. Afterwards, the daughters go home and are preoccupied with sleeping and explaining their debts to their husbands. Rastignac returns to the side of Le Père Goriot, remaining there until he expires.

Anastasie stops by briefly after her father is dead to express her love and her guilt, then departs. Delphine never shows. Rastignac uses the last of his own funds to arrange a funeral and burial. He must borrow money to tip the grave diggers. At the end of his ordeal, he sheds the last tear of his youth. Now understanding the game, Rastignac declares, “It’s just the two of us two now.” He departs to have dinner with Delphine, who will become his doorway to enter French high society.

Balzac's house in Passy, Paris 16th éme

This is the last remaining of Balzac’s many residences. He lived here in Passy for 7 years. Now it’s the Balzac Museum.

Honoré de Balzac

Between about 1830 and 1850 Balzac wrote prolifically, producing more than 100 works including books, plays, novellas, short stories, and poems. Le Père Goriot is one of the most important books in Balzac’s series Le Comédie Humaine . In this series of publications, he attempted to provide an all-encompassing description of Parisian society.

Characters from Le Comédie Humaine

The many characters from Le Comédie Humaine with a graph showing their complex interrelations between different books

His masterpiece was a unique contribution to the literary craft. His employment of realism and highly descriptive details, not to mention scandalous subjects, would influence fiction for generations to come. He also started reusing the same characters in different novels at different stages in the character’s lives, a unique method that created a web that give life to Le Comédie Humaine.

His characters are complex people, having both good and bad qualities. Rodin’s sculpture of Balzac, created nearly 50 years after his death, is less a likeness than a monument to his creativity and spirit. Balzac was a man who failed in many things before realizing his great success as a writer. His work and his characters reflect many of his own experiences.

Improving my sleep

Need help with sleep - read Balzac

My early struggles to read Le Père Goriot in print.

I owe a lot to Balzac. Reading Le Père Goriot (in French) was hard work. First I tried the audio book – too hard. Then I bought the paperback – difficult and time consuming. Then I took some months off to read Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and all of the Harry Potter series. Finally I started Le Père Goriot again on my Kindle. Better this time, but still not easy. It was the perfect antidote to coronavirus restlessness, making me weary and allowing me to fall back to sleep.

I hope I’m receiving compensating effects from my dreams. They seem to be affirming that there’s not much I can do but wait. On a hopeful note, you know that there are a lot of efforts to combat the virus that are farther along than we think, whether they be to manufacture and distribute masks or ventilators or plastic suits, to develop better testing for the virus, or to make progress towards a medicine or trial vaccine. Both in France and US we are nearing a peak in the number of deaths and new cases. We hope that the number of serious cases remains within our capacity for medical treatment. In another week we’ll find out new developments in all these areas. In the meantime, stay away from others and keep washing your hands.

But there’s a missing piece. Many of us are isolated away from family and friends. With whom can we share this anxiety?

Every night at 8pm, Parisians open their windows to applaud our healthcare workers for their tireless efforts in combatting the virus. Besides the applause we hear bells, whistles, shouts, and sometimes singing. A recent article in Le Figaro found that some doctors are indifferent to this showing of gratitude. It’s hard to feel it when you aren’t there. A sociologist said that these displays of support are really for ourselves, to show solidarity in our isolation. We hardly know our neighbors, much less the people across the street, but in this cause we are all together.

John Donne said it best: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main…. Any man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Any therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Plaza Fernandez de Madrid, Cartagena, Colombia

Photo from Plaza Fernandez de Madrid, where parts of the movie _Love in the Time of Cholera_ were filmed. This square also contained the cisterns for Cartagene’s water supply, fitting since cholera spreads through contaminated water.

Much of the news each day is devoted to describing problems with a new coronavirus, COVID-19, which has been spreading over the world since the beginning of 2020. Typically people try to ignore it, hoping it will go away. Then suddenly it sweeps through in a terrifying manner, and there is panic. Governments are left with an impossible situation, trying to protect their population while at the same time keeping an economy running so that businesses and people don’t go bankrupt. It’s a kind of a love story, where the girl must choose between two suitors she loves, hoping to choose one without hurting the other.

There were six world cholera pandemics in the 19th century. The third pandemic brought the disease to South America in the mid-1800s. In February, when COVID-19 was just starting to spread in China, we were on vacation in Cartagena, Colombia (South America), home of Gabriel García Márquez, the famous Colombian author. He wrote Love in the Time of Cholera, a story spanning the period from about 1880 to 1930 that follows the lives of two main characters, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza. Florentino, a passionate, artistic man, is struck by love at his first sight of Fermina. She is swept up by the same longing for him. Fermina’s father won’t allow her to see Florentino, and the family moves away to keep her at a distance from him. Still the couple exchange love letters.

The family eventually returns home. There, a third character, Dr. Juvenal Urbino, meets Fermina when he is called to examine whether she has cholera. The doctor verifies her good health and starts to court her, much to the liking of her father. The doctor has become rich and famous after ridding the town of cholera. He is a logical thinker who is driven to find fame and success.

Dr Urbino proposes to Fermina, and she rationalizes that, as much as she loves Florentino, she really hasn’t spent much time with him. She makes the logical choice is to marry the Doctor. Thus they are wed.

Florentino is disconsolate and swears his undying love for Fermina, despite being rejected as her suitor. In French en colère means angry; Florentino is choleric. He realizes he can somewhat ease his emotional pain by having trysts, so he starts to keep count of the number of his affairs. Sometimes he has fun. Sometimes there are terrible consequences. He never marries.

Meanwhile Fermina and Dr Urbino raise a family, have a comfortable life, and are widely respected in the community. Yet they have disputes, and the doctor is unfaithful. Like in any marriage, life is less than perfect. Years pass by, everyone grows old. One day Dr. Urbino falls off a ladder and dies. As soon as the funeral is over, Florentino appears before Fermina to again court her. She repulses him, but he is persistent. He has become head of a river transport company and is himself successful. She eventually gives in, and they settle together in old age.

This love story is a kind of dance between the three characters, and likewise, treating a pandemic is also a kind of dance until there is a vaccine to protect people from it. The city of Paris has a long history with vaccines, starting with cholera.

Large monument to Louis Pasteur at Place de Breteuil, Paris

Large monument to Louis Pasteur at Place de Breteuil, Paris (click on photos to see larger version)

A cholera vaccine for chickens was first discovered almost by accident in 1879 by Louis Pasteur, a microbiologist here in Paris. He was the first to understand the concept of a vaccine. He also made important discoveries in wine fermentation, inventing the process known today as pasteurization, widely used to preserve milk, wine, and other foods. Pasteur invented the vaccines for rabies and anthrax. I got my last cholera shot at the Pasteur Institute, which he founded and where he is buried. The search for a new vaccine is important to our story.

Love in the time of Coronavirus is perhaps just as intriguing as Love in the Time of Cholera. The government of every country on earth is faced with an impossible situation involving two things it loves. One, the economy, provides the means to live for everyone in the country (as well as for the government), but the economy requires a great deal of interaction between people. The other love, the people themselves, is threatened by a disease that will infect and kill many of them should they work to make the economy successful. Governments faced with this dilemma have chosen so far to protect the people, but it is killing their economies, perhaps promising financial and employment losses greater than any we have seen in our lifetimes.

Paris Marché Saxe

Paris Marché Saxe with police patrols and places marked to indicate where to stand in line.

Here in Paris we are under a pretty strict protocol. We can’t meet with anyone. There is no getting together with other family or friends. This is central to limiting the spread of the disease. No one knows who is infected. We can only go out to the grocery store or the pharmacy or the doctor or for exercise by ourselves (which still allows walking the dog should you have one). Access to stores is controlled to limit the number of people inside. There is a line at the door. At the outdoor markets, there are marks on the ground by the vendor stalls to keep people waiting in line at least one meter apart.

The French have issued a form that you must carry to show the police that you are outside for an authorized purpose. Your actions need to conform to your stated purpose. Parks and monument areas are off limits, even for those who want to exercise. People have been instructed to limit outdoor trips to a 2km radius from home. I was checked for my form and activities by a police patrol on Saturday. They forbid me to cross the Champ de Mars on my way to the grocery store. We wash our hands every time we come back in the apartment. We disinfect reusable bags after getting groceries.

I run alone regularly and go to the store for necessities. Otherwise I am here in the apartment. It’s not really a problem since I have plenty to do, study French, listen to audio books or read (in French and English), work on the Poulsbo Rotary web site, on home office projects I’ve been neglecting, and on keeping up with friends and family via FaceBook, e-mail, etc. Brenda does much the same. She goes to the outdoor markets. She also has a video workout session each week via FaceTime with her fitness trainer, as well as other fitness workouts from the internet. We’ve been scheduling movie rentals to have a date night that we can look forward to. The food in France is still excellent, and Brenda is a fantastic cook. We are not suffering.

I attended a Poulsbo Rotary Club online meeting using Zoom, a teleconferencing Web site and app. The meeting was really quite effective. Applications like Zoom could meet many needs as group congregations continue to be banned in the coming months.

Every night at 8pm, Parisians open their windows and applaud our healthcare workers for their efforts in combatting the virus. In my mind we extend these thanks to the police, rescue workers, sanitation workers, delivery personnel, and everyone else who still goes to work each day to supply the public with life’s essentials.

You can think of COVID-19 as an iceberg – what you see is only a fraction of what there is. When you try to calculate how fast the virus is spreading, you must make assumptions about the huge number of the already infected that you don’t officially know about. Many infected don’t ever have symptoms but can still spread the disease. I made an estimate of the growth of known active cases using assumptions from an article by Thomas Pueyo. Based on what is known now, the true number of active cases must be much greater than the number of known cases. Social distancing is necessary to slow the real (unknown) number of new active cases so that the known active cases, accounting for recoveries and deaths, can remain within the capacity of the medical establishment. If you can make the number of known active cases go down, you can be sure that the number of unknown cases is reducing by an even greater number.

COVID-19 cases in France and US

Known active COVID-19 cases in France and the US vs theoretical exponential rise as of 22 March

I have been plotting the number of known active cases in France and in the US versus the predicted exponential growth of known cases using Pueyo’s original assumptions. As you can see, the curve of active cases in both countries appears to be diverging from the predicted exponential rise if there were no controls. However, the rise in the US is still troubling.

A more recent article from Thomas Pueyo exhorts the US to do more now and outlines some ways to proceed once the initial surge of cases has flattened. Though the time to flatten the initial peak can be as short as a month with strict social distancing, the course of the recovery may be much longer, perhaps 18 months with some lesser social distancing measures still in place. Brace for big changes in how we interact socially.

Social distancing is a temporary strategy to buy time, not a fix, and will be financially devastating if it continues for a long time. Strict social distancing now will shorten the time of economic devastation. How can the government give some attention to her other love, the economy? We need to figure out how to test everyone rapidly and easily. Who has COVID-19, who doesn’t, and who has recovered and is now immune? Once we know this, we can figure out how to get people back to work.

Besides universal testing, we should consider other strategies:

  1. Use of drugs already approved for another purpose, such as hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug, in combination with azithromycin, to lessen the effects and shorten the recovery time. French doctors are having success when starting treatment before severe effects take hold.
  2. Use of a cell phone app or other means that identifies everyone with the virus and is able to track with whom they have had recent interactions. This method has been used successfully in South Korea and China. There may be privacy concerns with doing this in the west.
  3. Isolating everyone over age 65 and sending everyone else back to work. This could still expose millions of younger people to deadly consequences, and isolating the elderly will be difficult to control.
  4. Development of a vaccine – they say it will take 18 months.

Our leaders should insist that the bureaucracy act urgently to evaluate treatments that mitigate the disease or to evaluate for approval any proposed vaccine. These are tricky processes that require care so as not to do further harm, but stopping the spread and protecting those most vulnerable is urgent. We need a revolution in reviewing and approving solutions or many many will die.

As is apparent, the plot of Love in the time of Coronavirus is still under development. I’m confident that a world working furiously to solve these problems will be able to produce unexpected solutions. I ask you to practice strict social distancing, even if not yet mandated by your local or federal government. Keep your distance from others outside of your home. A lot is at stake here.

A Tale of Two Cities – Part 1

Gaspard à la Nuit

I’m reading Charles Dickens’s novel, "A Tale of Two Cities," in French. It is a story of London and Paris before and after the French Revolution. I’m only part way through, and not sure I understand everything that is happening. Here is what I know … [Continue reading]

Bonne année 2020!

2019 was our seventh year in France, the last year of the decade, our 30th wedding anniversary, each of our 50th high school reunions, the 50th anniversary of my swearing in at the Naval Academy, the 30th anniversary of my taking command of USS … [Continue reading]

A Song of Egypt

On the Nile river proceeding south from Luxor

Every morning at our hotel by the Red Sea the guy making eggs would hum a little song. It was a happy song, though I had never heard the tune. It was always the same. He was always happy, cooking eggs, humming a song of Egypt. I would never have … [Continue reading]

Bonne Année 2019

Happy New Year! 2018 ended for Brenda and me at an all-French party with friends and friends of friends in their home south of Paris. We returned to our apartment at about 4am this morning. Cafés and bars in our neighborhood were still going strong … [Continue reading]

Columbus Day

Statue of Christopher Columbus in Barcelona, Spain

With the growing unpopularity of Columbus Day (the second Monday of October in the US), this might be the perfect opportunity to review why we celebrate. This statue of Columbus in Barcelona was erected for the Barcelona Universal Exposition of 1888 … [Continue reading]

The Assumption of Mary

Entry Hall, Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse

August 15th is the French national holiday for the Assumption of Mary. This religious day is celebrated in many parts of the world by about 1.5 billion Catholics, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, as well as by parts of the Anglican Church. The holiday … [Continue reading]

August in Paris

Brenda on deserted rue Cler

Today it’s about 97°F, which has been typical this August in Paris. We have bright sun and not much wind. Since most apartments don’t have air conditioning, it’s pretty miserable in most places. The French call this weather une canicule, which comes … [Continue reading]

US Passport Renewal in Paris

US Embassy Paris

A small insight into life for Americans in France. We are in the process of passport renewal for our 10 year US passports. In the US you would fill out a form, send it with a check in the amount of the renewal fee to the State Department, along with … [Continue reading]