The Elixir of Life by Balzac

“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.


Filed under Balzac, Fiction

27 responses to “The Elixir of Life by Balzac

  1. Another facette of Blazac. I would have grouped this together with La peau de chagrin (The Wild Ass Skin).

    • I haven’t read that one yet. Am I correct in thinking that you didn’t care for it that much? Or was that The Girl w/the Golden Eyes?
      Next up for me…Passion in the Desert. I’ve seen the film, so I’m curious to see what the story is like

      • Yes, it was La fille aux yeux d’or which I did not only not like but hated big time. The only Balzac. I didn’t read this one nor La peau de chagrin but I had a feeling they belong both to his “supernatural” vein. I’ve read Séraphita and wasn’t to keen on that.

        • His forte is human nature, no doubt about it. Then he’s at his best

        • Seraphita is the worst! Many critics love it–thank goodness I’m not a critic, lol. Elixir is much easier to take, no comparison at all. As for La peau, I enjoy that one, although I do find parts of it overly long and tedious. In the opening it has a marvelous description of an antique shop.

          • Seraphita is down the line, and I bought a copy of it before I bought the kindle (and started loading up on free copies). Not sure who the translator is.
            What are your fav Balzac books, Madame V?

            • I could name about twenty as my favorites. My very favorite is Pere Goriot. It’s a wonderful book in its own right and introduces several of the recurring characters such as Bianchon, Rastignac and Vautrin. It’s also a sentimental favorite since it is the first of his I read and the one which introduced me to Balzac and the Comedie humaine.

              Other special favorites are Cousine Bette, Cousin Pons, the Lost Illusions trilogy, Un Menage de Garcon/La Rabouilleuse (which has also been translated with the title The Black Sheep) and Colonel Chabert.

          • I should finally read it. Yes, Seraphita isn’t one of my favourites at all.

  2. Ghoulish is right! This is one of the few stories and the only one of Balzac’s that I can recall that actually made me almost scream. Once read, who can forget that ending. (Thanks for the mention. John and I always appreciate when our labor of love is mentioned.)

  3. Pamela

    Great review, Guy! Keep them coming, i really enjoy reading what you have to say about Balzac.

  4. La peau de chagrin is of mixed quality – it’s by Balzac! – but he takes the underlying fable to some interesting places. The meaning accumulates.

    Now, “Passion in the Desert,” that is prime Balzac. What an imagination.

    • Hello Tom, nice to see you back. As I mentioned, I’ve seen the film, Passion in the Desert, so I’m very curious to see if the story has any other elements t0 it.

  5. Mme Vauquer is right, the antique shop scene is outstanding. It is soon followed by a “satirical” dinner party scene that had me grinding your teeth in irritation. The party ends, eventually, and then the story really starts moving forward.

  6. Emma

    I’ve never heard of this one
    I think the name Don Juan is a reference to Moliere : in this play, if I remember well, Don Juan is a libertine (of course ) but he also defies god, which is what you do when you play with immortality.
    I also thought of La peau de chagrin, also with supernatural elements and quite a painful school memory

    • Oh those school memories of being ruined for life….
      I wondered about the Don Juan name. After all, it conjures up a very specific image. It would be like naming a kid Casanova.

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