Through the Keyhole with Paul de Kock
Paul de Kock is not a writer that many people – including those with degrees in French studies – have heard of today. He rarely (if ever) features on undergraduate reading lists alongside the likes of Dumas, Hugo or Zola. Yet back in his day, de Kock was very big business for booksellers not only in France but also abroad.
Born in 1793, the son of a Dutch banker who was guillotined for being owed money by the Convention, de Kock became a highly successful novelist, playwright and lyricist in the early to mid-nineteenth century. In his encyclopaedia of oft-belittled literary talents La Lorgnette littéraire (1857), Charles Monselet wrote the following elegy in his honour: ‘O Paul de Kock, qu’embellissent les roses/ Va, ne crains rien des outrages du temps; / Tu survivras à nos siècles moroses, / Gai philosophe en habit du printemps.’ De Kock, Monselet predicted, would live on for future generations, thanks to his prose. He was wrong as it turned out.
He was not the only de Koch enthusiast at the time though. Far from it. Another was Eugène de Mirecourt, who wrote a short biography of the author, and described how when books were released, people rushed to the bookshops: « Le jour où on mettait en vente un roman de Paul de Kock il y avait une véritable émeute en librairie. On courait prendre les volumes par centaines, et les cabriolets brûlaient le pavé pour aller répandre l’œuvre nouvelle d’un bout de Paris à l’autre. » To a 21st century reader, this sounds like the release of the latest Harry Potter.
If de Mirecourt’s description sounds hyperbolic, one only needs to peruse a few of the great works of 19th century literature to find de Kock’s name mentioned, though usually as shorthand for light reading. In Les Misérables, for instance, Gavroche says he doesn’t have “le temps de lire les romans de M. Paul de Kock”. While Varvara Petrovna lays into Stepan Trofimovitch in Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed since “instead of standing as an example, keeping up the tradition of the past, you surround yourself with a wretched rabble, you have picked up impossible habits, you’ve grown feeble, you can’t do without wine and cards, you read nothing but Paul de Kock, and write nothing”.
Dostoyevsky may not have liked him, but de Kock’s fame during his lifetime was such that reportedly, Pope Gregory XVI was an avid reader of his works, and Leo XIII asked visitor to the Vatican Ferdinand Brunetière news of the “good Paôlo de Koko”, though he had been dead a number of years (he died in 1871). This account is provided by Alec Craig in his Banned Books of England and Other Countries. The fact that Craig, a collector of erotic and banned books, should have an interest in de Kock reveals that his name was shorthand for “osé” literature, at least abroad. So reading de Kocl was something of a guilty pleasure. Perhaps Dostoyevsky did like him but didn’t want to admit it.
Why though did de Kock disappear off the cultural radar in the late nineteenth and early-twentieth century? One explanation is that he was immensely popular for the portrait he painted of working class people, particularly in Paris and the surrounding area. As the city expanded and its layout was changed, so too did the jobs of the working class. The activities that de Kock described were no longer as prevalent and thus the documentary aspect of his work was no longer in evidence (except for historians and literary scholars). Readers were left with only flimsy plotlines that they could easily find in their contemporaries who described a world more familiar to them.
In truth though, we don’t know for sure and need to do more research to find out more about de Kock’s rise to fame and subsequent fall into (relative) oblivion. To this end, we need librarians to to dig out their copies of de Kock and to encourage students and scholars to read them, and read around them. And I’m counting on you to lead the way.
Dominic Glynn is lecturer in French at the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR).