Regular readers of this blog know that I’m reading my way through Balzac, and I returned to him, desperate for something good after a particularly toxic read. The Message happened to be the next one on the kindle, and it’s a wonderful short story that has everything: death, grief, love, and a few bittersweet life lessons.
The narrator begins his story announcing that his intention is to “drive” young lovers “to take refuge in the other’s heart.” So this is a cautionary, seize-the-day tale, with a narrator who plays a crucial part in a drama that is not his own. In his youth, back in the year 1819, the narrator was traveling from Paris to Moulins via stagecoach:
The state of my finances obliged me to take an outside place. Englishmen, as you know, regard those airy perches on the top of the coach as the best seats; and for the first few miles I discovered abundance of excellent reasons for justifying the opinion of our neighbours. A young fellow, apparently in somewhat better circumstances, who came to take the seat beside me from preference, listened to my reasoning with inoffensive smiles. An approximate nearness of age, a similarity in ways of thinking, a common love of fresh air, and of the rich landscape scenery through which the coach was lumbering along–these things, together with an indescribable magnetic something, drew us before long into one of those short-lived traveller’s intimacies in which we unbend with more complacency because the intercourse is by its very nature transient, and makes no implicit demands upon the future.
The topic of conversation turns to women, and the young men’s’ “ladyloves.”
Young as we both were, we still admired “the woman of a certain age,” that is to say, the woman between thirty-five and forty.
Once that admission has met the air, the confidences fly fast and furious, and the young men admit to each other that each loves a married countess. Then tragedy strikes….
The narrator holds back his personal details. We don’t know why he has little money, but he’s content to take the back seat in telling this story of other lives, another love, in which he became involved by sheer circumstance. A chance meeting with a young man of a similar age becomes a moment of maturity as tragic events place the narrator, duty bound, in a situation in which he’s an outsider and yet privy to the deepest secrets.
This is a story recalled many years later. The narrator admits that “for once, and perhaps for the only time in my life, I used tact.” That tact carries the day, and the narrator observes “undisguised human nature under two very different aspects” as he sees a marriage and its two partners who satisfy their hunger in their own ways.
The story is simple (not a great deal happens) but it’s brilliantly conceived and executed, and the narrator’s position as an observer and bearer of bad news allows him to see the innermost secrets of a married couple who manage their marriage fairly successfully–even if it’s not particularly happy. We only get a glimpse of the Comtesse de Montpersan–I wish we saw more, for she’s a great Balzac heroine with a strength and intensity that reminds me of the Countess Ferraud in Colonel Chabert.
Translated by Ellen Marriage