“Death is as unexpected in his caprice as a courtesan in her disdain; but death is truer–Death has never forsaken any man.”
In the introduction to this story, Balzac admits to an “innocent piece of plagiarism.” The Elixir of Life (L’Elixir de Longue Vie), he argues, is not one of “those hoaxes in vogue in the year 1830” (what hoaxes?). Balzac admits that he heard about the subject of this story from a friend and later discovered that the same subject matter was likely a “stray fancy of the brain of Hoffman.” If I hadn’t read that disclaimer, I think The Elixir of Life would have struck me more as a product of German Romanticism and less like Balzac’s usual fare–although La Comédie Humaine includes a few titles with these elements. Balzac’s excellent introduction, which reminds me of Derville in Colonel Chabert, discusses the nature of inheritance and those who eagerly await the death of a supposedly much loved relative.
Does humanity, which according to certain philosophers, is making progress, look on the art of waiting for dead men’s shoes as a step in the right direction? To this art we owe several honorable professions, which open up ways of living on death. There are people who rely entirely on an unexpected demise; who brood over it, crouching each morning upon a corpse, that serves as their pillow at night. To this class belongs bishops’ coadjutors, cardinals’ supernumeraries, tontiniers, and the like. Add to the list many delicately scrupulous persons eager to buy landed property beyond their means, who calculate with dry logic and in cold blood the probable duration of the life of a father or of a step-mother, some old man or woman of eighty or ninety, saying to themselves, “I shall be sure to come in for it in three years’ time, and then —–”
In this marvellous introduction, Balzac argues that many people lurk around the soon-to be deceased relative wishing for ways to hasten death, and that’s not too far a step away from actually committing the act of murder. So it should come as no surprise that The Elixir of Life concerns a most unusual case of parricide.
The story begins one winter in a palace at Ferrara. Lothario Don Juan Belvidero is hosting a banquet, whooping it up with his dissolute friends, and is surrounded by beautiful women several of whom wonder aloud when Don Juan’s elderly father will die. In the middle of this “orgy” (and I wonder if Balzac means it in the quite the same way as our modern-day interpretation of the word), he is told that his father is dying. He hastens to his father’s chambers, and here his father is on his death-bed with a faithful black poodle for a companion. Don Juan’s father, Bartolommeo Belvidero is 90 years old. He married at age sixty, and Don Juan, the only product of that tragically short union, has been overly indulged by his father. Don Juan, we are told, “treated old Bartolommeo as a wilful courtesan treats an elderly adorer; buying indemnity for insolence with a smile, selling good-humor, submitting to be loved.” Love that line which pitilessly sums up the roles between father and son. Don Juan, who can’t wait for his father to die, manages to put on a good show–after all, his father is checking out, and it won’t kill Don Juan to look as though he’s actually devastated that his indulgent father is finally going to die.
“Oh, if it were only possible to keep you here by giving up a part of my own life!” cried Don Juan.
(We can always say this kind of thing,” the spendthrift thought; “it is as if I laid the whole world at my mistress’ feet.”)
The thought had scarcely crossed his mind when the old poodle barked. Don Juan shivered; the response was so intelligent that he fancied the dog must have understood him.
“I was sure that I could count upon you, my son!” cried the dying man. “I shall live. So be it; you shall be satisfied. I shall live, but without depriving you of a single day of your life.”
“He is raving,” thought Don Juan. Aloud he added,” Yes, dearest father, yes, you shall live, of course, as long as I live, for your image will be forever in my heart.”
“It is not that kind of life that I mean,” said the old noble, summoning all his strength to sit up in bed; for a thrill of doubt ran through him, one of those suspicions that come into being under a dying man’s pillow. “Listen, my son,” he went on, in a voice grown weak with that last effort,”I have no more wish to give up life that you to give up wine and mistresses, horses and hounds, and hawks and gold—-”
“I can well believe it,” thought the son; and he knelt down by the bed and kissed Bartolommeo’s cold hands. “But, father, my dear father,” he added aloud, “we must submit to the will of God.”
Given the title of the story it’s fairly easy to guess what is afoot, but Balzac doesn’t let the reader off lightly, and some rather ghoulish events take place. The marvellous thing about this cynical story is the way it ends, and yes dear readers, pay-back is a bitch.
Translated by Clara Bell and James Waring. Produced by Project Gutenberg by Dagny. Free at Project Gutenberg and also free on Amazon for the kindle.