Stuck in an overbooked doctor’s office, yet armed with a kindle, it seemed the perfect time to read a Balzac story. This time it’s The Purse (La Bourse), the story of Hippolyte Schinner, a young man, an artist, who’s poised on the brink of success. There’s a back story here as Hippolyte is an illegitimate child, and although he’s much-loved by his mother, he knows what it means to be an outsider in society. One day, inside his rented rooms, Hippolyte is standing on a ladder when he falls to the floor and is knocked unconscious. When he comes to, he’s being attended by two women, neighbours who heard the commotion–one, of course, is very young and beautiful, and the other is much older.
Gratitude and curiosity fan Hippolyte’s interest. To compound his curiosity, he’s only just moved into the building and knows nothing about his neighbours.
The house belonged to one of those proprietors in whom there is a foregone and profound horror of repairs and decoration, one of the men who regard their position as Paris house-owners as a business. In the vast chain of moral species, these people hold a middle place between the miser and the usurer.
He decided to visit the two women and notices some peculiarities about Mademoiselle Adelaide Leseigneur and her mother. They are obviously very poor:
the chairs showed some remains of former splendor; they were of carved mahogany, but the red morocco seats, the gilt nails and reeded backs showed as many scars as an old sergeant of the Imperial Guard.
This room did duty as a museum of certain objects, such as are never seen but in this kind of amphibious household; nameless objects with the stamp at once of luxury and penury. Among other curiosities, Hippolyte noticed a splendidly finished telescope, hanging over the small discolored glass that decorated the chimney. To harmonize with this strange collection of furniture, there was, between the chimney and the partition, a wretched sideboard of painted wood, pretending to be mahogany, of all woods the most impossible to imitate. But the slippery red quarries, the shabby little rugs in front of the chairs, and all the furniture, shone with the hard rubbing cleanliness which lends a treacherous lustre to old things by making their defects, their age, and their long service still more conspicuous.
Balzac tells us that Hippolyte has yet to make the acquaintance of evil or duplicitous people. He chews over what he sees in the rooms belonging to the two women and tries to make sense of it all. He’s particularly perturbed by the card table that’s permanently set up in the corner, and the nightly visits from a couple of men who steadily lose at cards. To Hippolyte, things just don’t add up. Is the older woman fleecing her visitors? Is she pimping the young girl?
The old lady’s face was like the room she inhabited; it seemed as difficult to detect whether this squalor covered vice or the highest virtue, as to decide whether Adelaide’s mother was an old coquette accustomed to weigh, to calculate, to sell everything. or a loving woman, full of noble feeling and amiable qualities.
Then something happens …
While this isn’t an amazing story, it’s a good one–good for its descriptions of the rooms in which we see former grandeur blended uneasily with extreme poverty. But the story is also of interest as it marks a seminal time in this young man’s life. Hippolyte appears throughout La Comédie Humaine, and here he is young, and innocent. He’s never been confronted by truly ugly human behaviour, but he’s not naïve enough to imagine it doesn’t exist. Balzac captures the universality of the moment at which we all observe something odd and try to make sense of it–are we seeing evil at play for the first time, or are we seeing some human behaviour that we’ve never observed before–something that we need to add to our catalogue of experience?
for we try to postpone as long as possible our belief in evil, and it seems to come too soon.
Translated by Clara Bell