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Reading the past

Channeling the sixteen-year-old in me (the sixteen-year-old that I most certainly was), when I saw a Buzzfeed quiz* today that would reveal which affliction of La Belle Époque would lead to my untimely death, I really had no choice but to click and take it immediately.

I’ll be honest, I was a little disappointed with my result: broken heart. As a Moulin Rouge obsessed teenager, I thought it the height of elegance to die gracefully and beautifully of tuberculosis (or, as I like to call it, the galloping consumption) much like Satine, the main character. She coughed so daintily, looked so beautiful to the end and, of course, had Ewan MacGregor, the starving playwright, torn to bits at her demise.

Though I’ve since moved on from such childish fantasies (mostly), and I know that tuberculosis is neither a pleasant nor desirable thing to contract, it did get my mind reeling on all the reasons why I love that era and the literary movements that go along with it. Second only to the English Romantics (hello masterful Wordsworth, arrogant Byron and poor, poor sickly Keats), the French Belle Époque is an era of literature that I love dearly and tend to forget about until I’m reminded. I thank the one comparative literature course I took in college as well as any French teachers who tried to get me to read de Maupassant and Baudelaire in their original forms for introducing me to realism, naturalism and even the little bits of Modernism (I’ve read one half of one book of In Search of Lost Time and I consider that an accomplishment).

Such literature strikes a real chord—telling of a world on the precipice of something so different and alive than had ever before been described. Giving heed to experimentation that had theretofore been snubbed and extolling the beauty in the smallest and most quotidian of objects or actions. It’s been years, honestly, sadly, since I’ve given my books from this era a real look, but even reading the names of authors and poets—Zola, Rimbaud, those already mentioned—elicits a visceral reaction that whisks me back to visions of Parisian department stores and muddy alleys that are described with such clarity and honesty by these writers.

I’ve been trying to avoid using the word “romanticize” since I’ve also referenced the Romantics today, but I can’t any longer. Sure, I romanticize the era, seen through the rose colored tint of artwork and nostalgic whims of a reader in today’s fast paced, technology-obsessed world, but there is also an inherent liveliness to the work itself. Filled with urgency and excitement (and not without a heavy dose of nostalgia of its own), the literature of La Belle Époque is at once dreamy and intensely relatable.

My musings aside, do you have any favorite literary movements that still get your heart racing and brain whirring even if you don’t read them regularly?

 

*stop panicking, the quiz is here.

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