Academic journal article Romance Notes

Cerberus at the Gates: The Demonization of the French Female Concierge

Academic journal article Romance Notes

Cerberus at the Gates: The Demonization of the French Female Concierge

Article excerpt

Located at the threshold of modern Parisian apartment living, the concierge maintains the common spaces, delivers mail and, until 1957, "pulled the cord" to permit dwellers to enter the building at all hours of the night. Neither owner of nor renter in the building that she tends, the concierge occupies the first-floor loge--a liminal space that is neither entirely public nor truly private--where she simultaneously lives and works. In the nineteenth century, the concierge was often poor and uneducated, yet influential thanks in great part to her post at the front door: "She was feared because of her intermediate position, straddling public and private, between tenants and landlords and at times in cahoots with the police, who turned to her whenever there was an incident and who sought to recruit her as a spy" (Arles et Duby 230). (1) Her identity was so inextricably linked to her physical location at the entry to the building that she was often referred to as a portiere. However, the concierge's role of gatekeeper also earned her the far less flattering moniker of "Cerberus" --the mythological three-headed guard dog at the gates of hell. For instance, in his 1871 memoire, At Home in Paris: at Peace and at War, Jerrold Blanchard writes, "Concierges' boxes are usually gloomy; but that in which our Cerberus lived was in perpetual twilight" (13), (2) and even more recently, in Jose Benjamin's La concierge est dans le cercueil (2008), the eponymous character's loge is referred to as "l'antre du cerbere" (40).

The vilification of the female concierge in twentieth-century French literature is perhaps nowhere as blatant as in two seldom-discussed literary works: Rene Fallet's novel Paris au mois d'aout (1964) and Andre de Richaud's 1950's short story "Echec a la concierge." In both Fallet's novel and Richaud's short story, a female concierge--no more than a secondary character in both texts--inspires vehement diatribes and vengeful reverie by the male narrative agent. The following textual analyses propose to examine the damning portrayals of the female concierge in Richaud's and Fallet's otherwise different texts, with particular attention given to the religious and mythical lexicons that serve to amplify her evil nature, as well as the narrative strategies that serve to disparage her image. Tinged with a binary rhetoric of good and evil, the novels depict working-class female characters who, despite being located both at the lowest level of the buildings they tend and at the lowest rung of society, possess powers that anger and intimidate the male characters with whom they come in contact. Close examination of these works will reveal not only this working-class woman's ability to unnerve middle- to upper-class men, but also the reasons for and implications of her subsequent downfall in these mid-century male-dominated, male-centric narratives.

Winner of le Prix Interallie, Fallet's Paris au mois d'aout was subsequently adapted for the big screen two years later as a film of the same name starring Charles Aznavour. Today, however, Fallet's novel more frequently shows up in online readers' blogs than in academic articles, attracting descriptors such as "delightful," "touching" and even "cute" (Goodreads). As for "Echec a la concierge," according to my correspondence with author and literary critic Eric Dussert, Richaud likely wrote the short story in the 1950's, but it was virtually unknown until Dussert published it as the title work of a compilation of Richaud's short stories in 2012. Although "Echec a la concierge" has not presumably been widely read, Richaud's 1930 novel La Douleur was a source of inspiration for Albert Camus who was so taken with it that he read it "in one night." (3) Despite this rousing endorsement, Richaud's works were all but lost to oblivion--in part due to what Roger Colozzi describes as the author's reputation as an "alcoolique invetere [et] homosexuel notoire,"--an infamy that left him "litterairement et socialment infrequentable" (9). …

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