The Message by Balzac

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



Filed under Balzac, Fiction

14 responses to “The Message by Balzac

  1. Jonathan

    It’s good to have some short stories to fall back on when our reading choices go wrong.

    I’ll probably buy the NYRB Balzac collection that’s due out soon; how do you rate the stories in that collection?

  2. I’m always happy to see new translations of Balzac, but I don’t think I’ll be buying this as I’ve read most of them. Plus I have an entire set of Balzac from the 19th c plus various other versions and translations I’ve picked up here and there.

    I think the selection is geared towards giving the reader a sense of Balzac’s scope rather than giving his best. You’ve got history, realism, mysticism, mystery. I reviewed a few of them here (the Sarrasine review includes translation comparisons)-there’s a film of Passion in the Desert if you haven’t seen it.

  3. Jonathan

    I’ll check out your reviews and Lisa’s Balzac blog but it’s probably the sort of book I’m looking for – a Balzac sampler. Thanks.

  4. There’s a great biopic of Balzac with Gerard D. Looking at several of the biographies the great man seemed to have very complex attitudes towards politics. Some people say he was pro-Napoleon but when you read some of the stories that involve that period, it’s hard to say that Balzac didn’t see Napoleon’s flaws. I’ll be interested to see what you think–Adieu is the story I’m thinking about from that collection.

  5. This sounds excellent. I have to see if I can find it. I had not heard of it. I hope it has the same title in French.

  6. Brian Joseph

    You have certainly convinced me that somewhere along the line I need to read Balzac.

    In regards to simplicity that you allude to in this work, I think that that sometimes such tales say the most.

  7. It does sound excellent, but I have so much unread Balzac (and so little read Balzac)!

  8. The upcoming collection – or the old Penguin collection – is a great way to quickly run up your Balzac score. Remember, when people say there are 95 “novels and stories” in The Human Comedy, they mean it. Each story counts as much as a novel.

    I am only half-joking here. Read Balzac’s short stories!

  9. Balzac had been writing for a while when he conceived the idea of La Comédie Humaine. He wanted to create a panoramic portrait of society, and so he retroactively included books he’s already written (under his own name) in the sequence. The books he wrote under other names or anonymously (his early work while he was still finding his style) are NOT included in LCH. (Neither are his plays or Droll Stories. It’s close to 150 works, I think, but you can go here for more info:

    I’m working my way through slowly….
    And there’s a lot more than Zola’s Rougon-Macquart which took me a few years.

  10. It sounds like a good one. Does it have the same title in French?

  11. Reblogged this on My French Quest and commented:
    I love that you’re reading through Balzac! You have encouraged me to set this goal for myself…from the beginning!

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