Back to Balzac for The Magic Skin (La Peau de Chagrin) also known as The Wild Ass’s Skin, a novel which begins with Valentin, a young man in despair and contemplating suicide. This is one of those be-careful-what-you-wish-for stories. It’s October 1829, he’s spent the evening in a “gambling hell,” and Balzac gives us some marvelous descriptions of this “house of pleasure.”
As you enter a gaming-house the law despoils you of your hat at the outset. Is it by way of a parable, a divine revelation? Or by exacting some pledge or other, is not an infernal compact implied? Is it done to compel you to preserve a respectful demeanor towards those who are about to gain money of you? Or must the detective, who squats in our social sewers, know the name of your hatter, or your own, if you happen to have written it on the lining inside? Or, after all, is the measurement of your skull required for the compilation of statistics as to the cerebral capacity of gamblers? The executive is absolutely silent on this point. But be sure of this, that though you have scarcely taken a step towards the tables, your hat no more belongs to you now than you belong to yourself. Play possesses you, your fortune, your cap, your cane, your cloak.
Inside the gambling den, mingling with those there for diversion and those there simply because they cannot bear to leave, the young man takes his last piece of gold and bets on black. One savvy customer, an Italian, anticipating the young man’s bad luck, bets on the red. The young man loses, and the croupier correctly notes that the gold coin was the “last cartridge.” Another customer notes that now the loser will “go and drown himself,” and that’s exactly what he intends to do. He exits the casino and walks along the Seine. But even here, Valentin won’t be left in peace. An old woman who suspects his intention cackles at him, and Valentin decides to wait until it’s darker to throw himself into the cold and dirty water. To kill the time, he enters a shop that sells antiquities. It’s a wonderful shop, but it has a disorienting effect on Valentin.
At a first glance the place presented a confused picture in which every achievement, human and divine, was mingled. Crocodiles, monkeys, and serpents stuffed with straw grinned at glass from church windows, seemed to wish to bite sculptured hands, to chase lacquered work, or to scramble up chandeliers. A Sevres vase, bearing Napoleon’s portrait by Mme. Jacotot, stood beside a sphinx dedicated to Sesostris. The beginnings of the world and the events of yesterday were mingled with grotesque cheerfulness. A kitchen jack leaned against a pyx, a republican sabre on a mediaeval hackbut. Mme du Barry, with a star above her head, naked, and surrounded by a cloud, seemed to look longingly out of Latour’s pastel at an Indian chibook, while she tried to guess the purpose of the spiral curves which wound towards her. Instruments of death, poniards, curious pistols, and disguised weapons had been flung down pell-mell among the paraphernalia of daily life; porcelain tureens, Dresden plates, translucent cups from China, old salt-cellars, comfit-boxes belonging to feudal times. A curved ivory ship sped full sail on the back of a motionless tortoise.
There are several pages describing the shop’s artifacts, and it seems that these artifacts, these lost treasures increase in value and rarity on each subsequent floor of the shop, until, at last, there is too much to absorb. The shop’s ancient owner shows Valentin a “talisman,” a piece of shagreen that according to its owner, will grant all Valentin’s wishes, but there’s a drawback; with every wish the skin shrinks and that the wishes will be fulfilled at “the expense of the young man’s life.” Valentin grabs the skin and makes the wish for a “royal banquet.” Valentin refuses to heed the old man’s warnings and leaves the shop with the piece of skin. he’s no sooner outside of the building when he runs into some friends who have great news: a rich banker is funding a newspaper, and Valentin is dragged off to the celebratory party. The rest of Part I is spent detailing the feast or “orgy” as it’s called, and I’ll admit that my mind wandered a bit during this part. The orgy invitees are surreal and interesting at times, but this section of the novel seemed, for this reader, a little too long–although I appreciated the soulless women who could seamlessly have stepped from Balzac’s novel into noir fiction.
The novel includes two more sections: The Woman Without a Heart which is the back story to why Valentin was suicidal the night he attended the gambling house, and the third and final section is The Death Agony. We find Valentin, now a wealthy Marquis, surrounded by faithful servants who, by anticipating every whim, ensure that he doesn’t have to make wishes that will shrink the skin any further.
The Magic Skin, and incidentally my free copy for the Kindle was translated by Ellen Marriage, is strongly Faustian. Valentin prizes and covets wealth and power, and while he achieves his wishes, we see that his heart’s desires come at a terrible cost. In the Balzac scheme of things, the novel includes one of Balzac’s favourite themes: the corrupting force of money & insatiable greed, and while I liked it, I don’t rank it near his best. Le Peau de Chagrin was initially published in two volumes and sold for 1,135 francs in 1831. According to Balzac’s biographer, André Maurois, “to make quite sure of favorable reviews, he wrote some of them himself.”
In these two volumes the talent of M. de Balzac achieves the stature of genius (La Mode)
We have as much friendship as admiration for M. de Balzac–signed Comte Alex de B
I couldn’t help thinking about the recent scandals involving Amazon reviews with authors giving stellar reviews to their own work using fake names and on some occasions writing poisonous reviews of literary enemies. 1831 was a turning point for Balzac’s career. He earned a total of 14, 291 francs for various work, yet by the end of the year “his debts had increased by 6,000 francs.” By the end of 1831, he owed 15,000 francs to various sources and an additional 45,000 francs to his mother. André Maurois says that Balzac was “incapable of resisting temptation,” and he tells us of “enormous” bills for champagne and a tailor’s bill for 631 francs. Maurois explains that Balzac ‘had a horror’ (quote from Maurois) “of the solemn imbecilities indulged in by the English with their vaunted sangfroid.” So we see success and unbridled spending on a collision course–a fateful and tragic pattern that was to continue until Balzac’s death in 1850.