The Magic Skin by Balzac

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 coursea fateful and tragic pattern that was to continue until Balzac’s death in 1850.

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12 Comments

Filed under Balzac, Fiction

12 responses to “The Magic Skin by Balzac

  1. I really like this kind of fanciful and Faustian tale. I think that growing up watching the old Twilight Zone show whet my appetite as it often included stories with similar themes and motifs. I belive that books like this one undoubtedly influenced those television shows.

  2. This is the one Balzac which I postpone always because I’m quite sure I will like it a great deal. It has all the ingredinets of a story I will love. The descriptions and the Faustian deal.
    The amazon story is beyond odd. I’m not on goodreads but I constantly hear similar stories. I once visited a French blog and the blogger was attacked by a writer because she wrote she was a bit disappointed it wasn’t as good as she had hope but an OK read. His reaction was shocking and shameful. Luckily she had support.

    • I think the ease of the Amazon review venue is too tempting for people to resist when it comes to enacting vendettas or self promotion. I knew one author whose books were panned and he had to go to some great lengths to get the negative (personally nasty) reviews removed.

      On the subject of the blogger, some writers can handle criticism well and others not so much. Sometimes it seems to be a matter of a book ending up with the wrong reader. I mean, give me a bodice ripper romance and you can predict my reaction. But then some books are over hyped which does the author no favour.

      I found it funny that Balzac wrote his own reviews. Shows that people never change.

  3. acommonreaderuk

    I have been happily guided by you in my reading of Balzac and will once again download this book and read it in the New Year. We are now in a world in which publicists use all manner of tricks to increase the ratings of their clients. It is useful to remind myself that I am writing about books solely because I enjoy doing so and for no other reason – certainly the miniscule sums of money I make through my associateships don’t even repay the hosting costs.

  4. Poe wrote an outstanding review of his own work. But I think – I think – it is something of a parody.

    Your piece reminds me of all of the amazing scenes in this novel – the antique shop is superb, the casino almost as good. The duel off near the end. And the orgy, which is amazing in its tediousness, a deadly period piece.

  5. As you already know, I read this in school and it is one of my worse memories of mandatory reading. I remember the painfully long descriptions and how bored I was.
    I prefer The Picture of Dorian Gray.

    I have several random other comments:
    - it struck me in the quote describing the antique shop that the objects he describes come from former regimes (stuff with Napoleon or Madame du Barry on them)

    - In French, we have an expression “se réduire comme peau de chagrin” which comes from this novel and is used to describe something that shrinks, decreases fast and without possible return.

    - I didn’t know about the fake reviews by Balzac and I agree with you, it just shows the persistence of human nature. I never read reviews on Amazon or take into accounts the number of stars on the site or on Goodreads. I don’t care.

    • Interesting that this novel should be so seminal that it enters the language. I was watching the Soviet version of War and Peace the other day and thought about the term Berezina.

  6. I liked this novel a lot because it encompasses the extremes of romanticism: the pastoral and the diabolical. Also, it was more sexually explicit than Balzac’s norm, which was interesting. Personally, I liked the orgy – wasn’t bored a moment, but then, I have a rich fantasy life…

    You commented on my review three years ago – you might find the post interesting now that you’ve read it. http://wp.me/p3LmG-SF

    Good reading in 2013 to you and all your readers!

  7. acommonreaderuk

    I am half-way thought this book and thought I would turn to your review to see what it is all about. Having read your excellent review I now feel that I know enough about the novel and would be hard-pressed to add anything to your thorough summary of the book and it’s background – so I think I’ll move on to read something else. I will now write about A Slight Misunderstanding which was much more to my tasted than La Peau de Chagrin.

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