Café des Exilés

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Joseph Pennell. ‘Café des Exilés’. Etching on Paper, 1882. Private Collection.

The second story in George Washington Cable’s collection ‘Old Creole Days’ is entitled ‘Café des Exilés’, and is the tale of a half-French, half-Spanish aristocrat who has fallen on hard times and opened a small New Orleans café which specializes in cooling drinks. It is also the daily haunt, and thus its name, of a rather motley assortment of expatriates from other lands. A handful of them form what they call their ‘burial society’, whose purpose is ostensibly to convey the bodies of their deceased fellow exiles, when the time comes, to their native lands and see that they receive proper burial. But there is much mystery to this group and the details of that mystery are essential to the working out of the story, so I won’t spoil the latter here for the reader, who will want to experience the former first hand for himself. A very interesting and extensive treatment of this work from a literary critical point of view can be found in Alice Hall Petry’s ‘A Genius in His Way: the Art of Cable’s Old Creole Days’ (Associated University Presses, 1988), in the chapter entitled ‘Floating in the Clouds of Revery: Love and Intrigue at the Café des Exilés’. My purpose here is not to analyze the story, but to take a quick look at some of Cable’s use of language. But, to encourage my readers to explore it, I will say that ‘Café des Exilés’, in terms especially of its complex and even tricky narrational style, is something of a tour de force. Look closely at it, however, or you might easily miss what I’m talking about.

As for language, I think Cable was a master of descriptive and informative prose used to move a story along, and he’s worth reading just for that. As in his introduction of the café owner’s daughter Pauline, for example: ‘Then the neighbors over the way, sitting about their doors, would by and by softly say, “See, see! there is Pauline!” and all the exiles would rise from their rocking-chairs, take off their hats and stand as men stand in church, while Pauline came out like the moon from a cloud, descended the three steps of the café door, and stood with water and glass, a new Rebecca with her pitcher, before the swarthy wanderer.’

There are some marvelous similes: ‘Such was the Café des Exilés, such its inmates, such its guests, when certain apparently trivial events began to fall around it as germs of blight fall upon corn, and to bring about that end which cometh to all things.’ And: ‘…but the most frequent rendezvous was the Café des Exilés; it was quiet; those Spanish Creoles, however they may afterward cackle, like to lay their plans noiselessly, like a hen in a barn.’

At another extreme, I find Cable to be singularly ungifted as a writer of dialogue, to the point where I think he might with tremendous profit have omitted it altogether. He is addicted to a very amateurish depiction of dialect, ranging from simple sentences with pointless misspellings such as: ‘I say, I want to have a private wurd with ye’ to utterly unintelligible lines of almost total nonsense like these: ‘You goth a heap-a thro-vle, Señor’; ‘Was a bee growth a’ the Café des Refugiés; and ‘Mayor Shaughness’–yez-a; was there; boat-a’, which clearly are undecipherable and would easily lead the reader to total despair were they not frequently curtailed in favor of Cable’s tremendous descriptive and thoughtful passages of prose. It’s a strange mix.

If I had to choose one word to describe Cable’s writing, I would say that it is ‘atmospheric’. From the first page of a story he creates an environment which draws the reader in, where he or she feels comfortable and wants to linger in the languid, fragrant and highly enigmatic atmosphere of Cable’s 19th century Creole South. But you have to look beneath the surface to find the real genius. It’s structural. And the edifice Cable builds–quite gleefully, the reader begins to suspect–is intricate in the extreme, but almost completely invisible. 

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