Arts & Literature

Art in Paradise: Unruly

Author and editor Carole DeSanti's debut novel examines the life of a 19th-century prostitute in Paris.

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Thursday, April 05, 2012

Carole DeSanti is a longtime book editor, currently a vice president and editor-at-large at Penguin. She had, apparently, quite a secret for a decade or so: while shepherding voices like those of Terry McMillan, Tracy Chevalier, Penelope Lively and others to print, DeSanti was working on her own sprawling piece of literature.

Though that effort took place over many years and in many locales, the bulk of the novel, DeSanti explains, took shape in very local environs—a farmhouse in Leverett. It also had the support of the Five College Women's Studies Research Center and Hedgebrook. The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. is the result, and it just hit shelves. DeSanti reads from her novel this week at South Hadley's Odyssey Bookshop.

The Unruly Passions is itself unruly, an attempt to evoke a remarkable time in French history, the 1870-71 siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. The war was one of the endless string of European conflicts based on changing borders and claims to various thrones, but the regular people of Paris suffered mightily all the same. DeSanti's protagonist is a prostitute forced to give up a child, a woman at the bottom of the social order whose trajectory is a remarkable act of self-definition in an inhospitable era.

DeSanti's prose feels like an attempt to resurrect the rich stylings of 19th-century prose, a weighty conglomeration of detail and inner monologue that aims to bring life to another time. It often walks an edge between mannered high style and something more akin to corset-ripper: "I woke to the sound of church bells; insistent, unstopping, pulling me from the shallow marooning shoals of a dream. Dirty light filtered in through the window; a wafer of ice lay on top of the water in the pitcher. Paris. Blackened stub of wick in a pool of wax; an aching head and skirts pulled up and rumpled as though I had been ravished by something unseen in the night."

What's most of interest is Eugenie R.'s voice as a prostitute, not a predominant voice in the literature of the 19th century. It's clearly Eugenie's voyage of establishing her own life and identity that motivated DeSanti to adopt her protagonist, as spelled out early in the novel: "How does a woman learn to doubt herself? When does it happen, and why? Is it in her blood and bones from birth, does her mother nurse her on it?"

The genesis of the main character, DeSanti explains in an interview, came years ago, when she worked at Dutton and a self-proclaimed clairvoyant dropped in to try to sell his book: "...he told me, among other things, that I'd had a 'past life' as a prostitute in France."

Later she read Emile Zola's Nana, about a French prostitute. "I devoured it in a night," DeSanti says, "but it also bothered me: Zola's heroine had no soul, no interior life—and I 'knew' (wherever this knowledge came from) that something was wrong, here. ...Something in me felt stuck a century and a half back, and past lives or not, I needed some help with that. I had to invent it, though. This novel was a way to work out some problems in my life, among other things."

You can hear DeSanti read from her novel this week.

April 5, 7 p.m., The Odyssey Bookshop, 9 College St., South Hadley, (413) 534-7307, odysseybks.com.

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