Tag Archives: Balzac

Cousin Pons: Balzac

Continued from Part 1..

When Pons suffers the ultimate humiliation at the home of his relations, the de Marvilles, he decides to take his evening meals with his best friend, the naive German musician Schmucke. Schmucke and Pons work at the same theatre and lodge at the same building. Schmucke, who doesn’t care much about food, doesn’t understand Pons’s “gastric nostalgia,” and he treasures his friendship with Pons above all else. Events occur which further blacken Pons’s welcome at the de Marvilles’ home, and Pons subsequently becomes ill.  With Pons incapacitated in bed, and very possibly dying, the concierge Madame Cibot takes command of Schmucke & Pons–her two “nutcrackers.”  She and her tailor husband don’t own the building but instead they run it for the elderly absent owner. Cibot is ailing and finds it difficult to continue to work, and La Cibot bemoans the lack of private income while noting that servants are often left annuities by former, grateful employers. Before Pons’s illness she wasn’t a bad caretaker, but Madame Cibot has gradually taken over various aspects of Pons and Schmucke’s lives. She does their laundry, makes and mends clothes and even provides meals. It’s through these services that she gradually creeps into every aspect of the bachelors’ lives and she begins to become obsessed with gaining an annuity through inheritance. Once fixated on this idea, she becomes increasingly disgruntled and convinced that she’s owed. Balzac, as ever, that great chronicler of human nature understands Madame Cibot; need, opportunity and justification–all those elements twist and turn in a poisonous blend, and soon Madame Cibot plots to strip Pons of his fortune. But she isn’t the only one who can’t wait to get her hands on Pons’s art collection, and the vultures gather….

Through Cibot’s greed, Balzac introduces a network of corruption and some great secondary characters. The ambitious  ‘man of law’ Monsieur Frasier is by far the most intriguing. He’s a dangerous cobra–waiting to strike at his enemies, and someone you certainly don’t want to cross. Frasier has a checkered past and he’s desperate to get ahead in society:

The next day, at six in the morning, Madame Cibot was in the rue de la Perle, eyeing the abode of her future legal adviser, our Monsieur Frasier, man of law. It was one of those houses inhabited by erstwhile lower-middle-class people. You entered it from an alley. The ground floor was partly taken up by the porter’s lodge and the premises of a cabinet-maker whose workshops and showrooms encumbered a small inner courtyard. It was divided into two portions by the alley and the well of the staircase, into which saltpeter and damp had eaten. The whole house appeared to be suffering from leprosy.

Before meeting Frasier, Madame Cibot speculated why he didn’t marry one of his clients–a certain Madame Florimond. Frasier’s concierge tells Madame Cibot that she’ll understand when she sees Frasier:

Monsieur Frasier, a shriveled and sickly looking little man with a red face covered with spots which spoke of impurities in the blood, who moreover was constantly scratching his right arm, and whose wig, pushed far back on his head, incompletely concealed a sinister-looking, brick-coloured cranium, rose from the cane armchair in which he had been sitting on a green leather cushion. Assuming an amiable air and a fluting tone of voice, he said as he offered her a chair:

‘Madame Cibot, I think?’

Schmucke is the one perfectly good character in the book (Pons has the weakness of loving food), and so while Schmucke is completely sympathetic, his dialogue was maddening. Yes I know he’s German, but the passages of his broken English weren’t easy to plough through:

‘Unt yet,’ he continued, ‘zey haf hearts of golt. In a vort, zey are my little Saint Cecelias, scharmink vomen, Matame te Portentuère, Matame to Vantenesse, Matame to tillet. I only see zem in zehamps-Elyssées, vizout zem seeink me. Unt yet zey lof me much, and I coult stay in zeir country-house, put I like much pesser to pe viz my frient Pons, pecausse I can see him ven I vish unt efery tay.’

In Cousin Pons, Balzac shows that innocence, kindness and decency are poor adversaries against greed. Many people have designs on Pons’s valuable art collection, and its questionable acquisition will solve the problems of some characters and make the careers of several others. Some of the vultures who gather for the spoils are more vicious than their fellow predators; the powerless will always be powerless, even as they grab the crumbs from the table. As Madame Cibot notes:

‘I knew perfectly well, my dear Monsieur Frasier, that I shouldn’t get even a whiff of that particular roast…’

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Cousin Pons: Balzac

“And here begins the drama, or if you prefer, the terrible comedy of the death of a bachelor delivered over by the force of circumstances to the rapacity of covetous people assembled around his bed.”

Balzac’s Cousin Pons, published first as a serial in 1847, is subtitled: Part Two of Poor Relations. Part One of Poor Relations is Cousin Bette–in my opinion, a much better novel. That’s not to say that Cousin Pons is bad; it isn’t, but while Cousin Bette is the story of a bitter, twisted poor relation’s plot to destroy the Hulot family (and they fall into her spiteful hands), Cousin Pons is the story of a harmless bachelor whose illness and death are accelerated by his greedy landlady, local art dealers and relatives who all plot to get their hands on Pons’s valuable art collection. Cousin Bette’s relatives fall victim to her dastardly plot, and the Hulots are mostly destroyed through actions of their own choosing, but in Cousin Pons, Pons and his innocent, child-like friend, fellow musician, Schmucke, are no match for the vultures who gather to strip the two men of Pons’s fortune. So while we expect the Hulots to fall in Cousin Bette, it’s painful to read about the systematic stripping of Pons’s fortune. For a great deal of the novel, Pons, who really should be a central character, is ill in bed, and that leaves secondary–albeit much more interesting characters–to carry the plot. It’s in these secondary characters that the book’s strengths can be found.

cousin ponsBut now to the plot…

Cousin Pons is the poor relation of a large extended family. The first few pages of the novel describe Pons’s appearance. It’s 1844, but Pons is dressed with “an unconquerable fidelity to the modes of 1806.” And here’s a beautiful long quote about his attire:

And so this thin, dried-up old man wore a nut-brown spencer over a greenish coat with white metal buttons! In 1844, meeting a man in a spencer made it seem as if Napoleon had deigned to come back to life for an hour or two.

Now spencers were invented, as the name implies, by an English lord who was doubtless vain of his elegant figure. Some time before the Peace of Amiens, this Englishman had solved the problem of covering his torso without burying himself in a carrick, that horrible garment which is now ending its days on the shoulders of old-fashioned cabmen. But as slender waists are scarce, the male fashion in spencers was short-lived in France, even though it was an English invention. At the sight of this gentleman’s spencer, spectators in their forties and fifties mentally arranged him in top-boots and ribbon-bowed, pistachio-green kerseymere breeches. They saw themselves back in the costume of their youth. Old women started living their love lives over again. Young people wondered why this Alcibiades had cut off his coat-tails. Everything else about him went so well with this spencer that you would not have hesitated to set this passer-by down as an ‘Empire Man’, just as one speaks of ‘Empire furniture’. But he symbolized the Empire only for those who knew something, at least from illustrations, about that superb and impressive era. The Empire is already so distant from us that not everybody can conjure it up in all its Gallo-Grecian reality.

So Pons is the sort of man it’s easy to poke fun at. He’s very thin, unattractive and he holds a position as a conductor in a theatre. Pons appears to be very poor, but in fact he’s managed over the years to amass a fantastic art collection. Balzac, ever a writer to exploit the hidden fixations of his characters, states: “you could see at a glance that he was a well-bred man addicted to some secret vice, or one of those persons with private means whose every disbursement is so strictly limited by the modesty of their income that a broken window-pane, a torn coat, or that plague of our philanthropic age, a charity collection, would cancel out their petty enjoyments for a month.”

So that’s one of Pons’s vices–almost all of his money goes towards this fantastic collection of objets d’art including “forgotten relics of seventeenth-and eighteenth century art,” Sèvres porcelain, snuff boxes and miniatures. But Balzac doesn’t think that Pons’s obsession with his art collection is necessarily a bad thing:

For in truth, to adopt a mania is like applying a poultice to the soul: it can cure any taedium vitae, any spleen. Let all those no longer able to drain what has always been called ‘the cup of joy’ take to collecting something (even advertisement bills), and in this they will find the solid gold of happiness minted into small coinage.

But Pons does have a weakness: he lives to eat well, and he cannot bear to eat simply. Over the years, he’s managed to meet his gastronomic cravings by invitations to the best houses in Paris, but as the years wear on, and Pons ages and becomes more and more unattractive, the invitations to dinner are few. There was a period when he made himself useful to his hosts and even served as a sort of spy, but those days are over. There are just a couple of houses where he is considered the poor relation who must be tolerated, and he becomes that dreaded figure; the “hanger-on.” And this is where all the problems begins when he shows up at dinner time at the home of his relatives, the Marvilles. Pons is such an object of ridicule that the servants feel free to treat him badly, and even though Pons arrives with an extremely valuable Watteau as a gift, 23 year-old Cécile de Marville fabricates an excuse to leave so that they can ditch Pons. There’s not much of an attempt made to hide the ruse, and Pons is humiliated….

More in part II

Translated by Herbert J. Hunt

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The Deserted Woman by Balzac

In his short story, The Deserted Woman, Balzac is back on familiar ground writing about another unhappily married woman, but the twist here is that the woman had a lover, left her husband and was subsequently abandoned.  It’s 1822, and Mme de Beauseant, a woman with a soiled reputation, now lives a reclusive life in her high-walled estate, Courcelles, in Lower Normandy.

Wealthy, twenty-three-year-old (at another point we’re told he’s 22) Gaston de Nueil is sent from Paris to his cousin’s house in Lower Normandy to recover from “an inflammatory complaint, brought on by overstudy, or perhaps by excess of some other kind.” After we read a bit more about Gaston, the speculation about “overstudy” seems unlikely, and that leaves the other possibility at the root of his exile, “excess of some other kind.” And this last possibility seems increasingly likely as the story continues. Gaston is an obsessive and a Romantic–a dangerous combination. Unfortunately his temperament is not suited to the social climate at his cousin’s house, and he very soon meets and is bored by “the whole town.” Balzac can’t resist a dig at this provincial society and the stratification of the local aristocracy–big fish in a small pond:

First of all comes the family whose claims to nobility are regarded as incontestable, and of the highest antiquity in the department, though no one has so much as heard of them a bare fifty leagues away.

Balzac has so much fun with these provincials that he carries on poking fun at the locals for a few pages.

A couple of evenings spent at his cousin Mme de Sainte-Severe’s home and poor Gaston is bored to tears, enjoys a few days of “vegetable happiness,” is beginning to find that he has “sunk back into the lifeless life of the provinces,” and then he overhears a tantalizing conversation regarding a certain Mme de Beauseant:

The women appeared to take counsel of each other by a glance; there was a sudden silence in the room, and it was felt that their attitude was one of disapproval.

“Does this Mme de Beauseant happen to be the lady whose adventure with M. d’Ajuda-Pinto made so much noise?” asked Gaston of his neighbor.

“The very same,” he was told. “She came to Courcelles after the marriage of the Marquis d’Adjuda; nobody visits her. She has, besides, too much sense not to see that she is in a false position, so she has made no attempt to see any one. M. de Champignelles and a few gentlemen went to call upon her, but she would see no one but M. de Champignelles, perhaps because he is a connection with the family.

Mme de Beauseant is considered “quite mad,” and the argument for that is that she left her husband “a well-bred man of the world, who would have been quite ready to listen to reason.” So the implication here seems to be that the fact she had an affair is not why she is considered “quite mad,” but her sanity is in question because she left her husband–a man who, no doubt, has affairs of his own and would have turned a blind eye to those of his wife.

With a sense of “fatality,” (and just how fatal this is becomes apparent by the story’s end), Gaston feels drawn to Mme de Beauseant, and although she lives  a life of seclusion, he plots to gain access to her under false pretences. His youth may excuse part of his selfish drive, for he either fails to grasp or simply doesn’t care that he’s placing Mme de Beauseant in a very vulnerable position. He does, of course, eventually meet this woman, and it’s for the reader to decide if she is a femme fatale or if Gaston is the homme fatale in this story–a story which works with a stunning symmetry.

As always, Balzac’s great talent is his insight into human nature. Gaston, the obsessive romantic can’t help himself when faced with this tragic figure of Mme de Beauseant, a woman who’s already broken the rules of society and has staked all on the promises given to her by a lover. Gaston is captivated by Mme de Beauseant:

The triple aureole of beauty, nobleness, and misfortune dazzled him.

In one scene Mme de Beauseant echoes Julie from A Woman of Thirty with her tale of how she “endured the torture of a forced marriage of suitability.” Julie compares a loveless marriage to prostitution, and both Mme de Beauseant and Julie express the opinion that young girls are forced to make choices when they are too young to know what they want. In A Woman of Thirty, however, Julie’s father tried and failed to stop her from marrying a man he knew would make her unhappy. We don’t have that background information in The Deserted Woman. Balzac is generous to Gaston and chalks up his stubborn drive to wear down Mme de Beauseant’s defenses to the folly of youth, but youth passes …

Balzac argues that love between two people is something to be cherished and valued:

The pleasure of loving, like some rare flower, needs the most careful ingenuity of culture. Time alone, and two souls attuned each to each, can discover all its resources, and call into being all the tender and delicate delights for which we are steeped in a thousand superstitions, imagining them to be inherent in the heart that lavishes them upon us. It is this wonderful response on one nature to another, this religious belief, this certainty of finding peculiar or excessive happiness in the presence of one we love, that accounts in part for perdurable attachments and long-lived passion.

The Deserted Woman is a story of forbidden passion and the sacrifices we are willing to make for love, but it’s also an examination of human nature and motivation. While Balzac clearly has a lot to say about the choices facing women in the 19th century, he also brings in the issue of the pressures facing men. Gaston is the second son, but his elder brother is expected to die young and that places enormous pressure upon Gaston as the heir. If true love is a rare thing, how many people are willing to pay the price? Mme de Beauseant has proved that she’s sacrifice her reputation for love, but does Gaston have the staying power necessary to defy the rules of the society?

 

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A Woman of Thirty by Balzac

Balzac’s flawed novel, A Woman of Thirty, is essentially a character study of a woman named Julie who makes incorrect choices, ruins her life and the consequences of those choices to her children. The plot starts off very well but then loses its focus, finally wandering into dodgy soap territory laced with coincidence. The story title implies that we will see Julie as a woman of thirty, and it’s true, we do see Julie as an unhappy thirty-year-old, but the story spans over thirty years and continues until 1844 when Julie is about 50. Balzac draws a portrait of a miserable marriage–a marriage of unequal sensibilities. Julie is an intelligent, sensitive woman paired with a man of mediocre talents which are masked by his rank and wealth. The observations Balzac makes on this subject were worth a post of their own, and while A Woman of Thirty is flawed, it has moments of sheer Balzac brilliance.

The story opens in 1813, April, on “a morning which gave promise of one those bright days when Parisians, for the first time in the year, behold dry pavement underfoot and a cloudless sky overhead.” This perfect weather is a glorious backdrop for the spectacle about to take place at the Tuileries–a “magnificent review” of Napoleon’s forces just before he sets out on  “upon the disastrous campaign” which ended in Napoleon’s defeat. Balzac specifically tells us which battles will be won and which battles will be lost, but all this is in the future as crowds, pumped up with patriotism, gather to watch the colourful “military manoeuvres.”

In the crowd is a beautiful young girl named Julie who’s excitedly dragging her father along to watch the spectacle. It’s clear that she’s there to see someone very specific–Colonel Victor D’Aiglemont. Julie cannot hide her emotions, and her father, guessing that his daughter is in love, warns her not to marry D’Aiglemont. Julie argues, and her father predicts only misery if Julie insists on marrying this man:

Girls are apt to imagine noble and enchanting and totally imaginary figures in their own minds; they have fanciful extravagant ideas about men, and sentiment, and life; and then they innocently endow somebody or other with all the perfections of their day-dreams and put their trust in him. They fall in love with this imaginary creature in the man of their choice; and then, when it is too late to escape from their fate, behold their first idol, the illusion made fair with their fancies, turns to an odious skeleton. Julie, I would rather you fall in love with an old man than with the colonel. Ah! If you could but see things from the standpoint of ten years hence, you would admit that my old experience was right. I know what Victor is, that gaiety of his is simply animal spirits–the gaiety of the barracks. He has no ability, and he is a spendthrift. He is one of those men whom Heaven created to eat and digest four meals a day, to sleep, to fall in love with the first woman that comes to hand, and to fight. He does not understand life. His kind heart, for he has a kind heart, will perhaps lead him to give his purse to a sufferer or a comrade; but he is careless, he has not the delicacy of heart which makes us slaves to a woman’s happiness, he is ignorant, he is selfish. There are plenty of buts–

After this initial scene, each of the subsequent periodic glimpses into Julie’s life reveal the consequences of the choices she made in the previous section. The opening sequence shows Napoleon’s armies gathering, the final glories of the Napoleonic Empire just as it’s about to fall. Interestingly, Balzac parallels this by placing Julie on the brink of her life–about to make a disastrous choice in falling for Victor. Fast forward a year. Julie’s father is dead, Julie is married to Victor, and she’s already thoroughly miserable….

The marriage between Victor and Julie stumbles along; she’s bitterly unhappy and grows pale and ill, and he, complaining to his friends about his delicate wife, consoles himself with other women.

One of the interesting aspects of the story is Balzac’s frank approach to marital sex. At one point Julie, left by Victor with an elderly aunt, writes a letter to a friend warning her of the miseries of marriage, and the old Marquise reads the letter. In the letter Julie warns her friend, Louisa, that after “a few days of marriage, [and] you will be what I am already–ugly, wretched, and old.” A major complaint is sex with an oblique reference to “the last outburst of delicious merriment” right before Victor gets into the marital bed for the first time. After reading Julie’s letter to Louisa, Victor’s aunt, the worldly, elderly Marquise tells Julie:

“If a dish at table is not to our taste, there is no occasion to disgust others, with it, child.”

The Marquise grasps that when it comes to sex with Victor, Julie finds “it impossible to share his pleasures.” At one point, after winning back Victor’s attentions, Julie manages to convince him that sex is no longer part of their relationship. Victor and Julie grow apart; he has affairs and he tells his friends that they would act as he does is they “had a pretty wife so fragile that for the past two years you might not so much as kiss her hand for fear of damaging her.”  We hear Victor’s side of the matter in a speech with an interesting analogy as he confides to a friend:

Do not you encumber yourself with one of those fragile ornaments, only fit to put in a glass case, so brittle and so costly that you are always obliged to be careful of them. They tell me that you are afraid of snow or wet for that fine horse of yours; how often do you ride him? That is just my own case. It is true that my wife gives me no ground for jealousy, but my marriage is purely ornamental business; if you think that I am a married man, you are grossly mistaken. So there is some excuse for my unfaithfulness.

A Woman of Thirty is a study in character. We know that Victor is weak and not particularly intelligent. There’s no substance underneath that flashy uniform. At first it’s fairly easy to blame all of Julie’s woes on her husband-after all she was warned about Victor by her father. But then Balzac raises the fascinating issue of sexual incompatibility. There’s a hint that Victor’s just a tad too brutish for Julie. Julie and Victor’s incompatibility is underscored by her love for two other men; in the case of one man, this is not the sort of love that includes passion and sex. It’s agape love–self-sacrifice, devotion and worship. Julie’s passion for the second man brings dire consequences to her family. Some female characters in Balzac pour all their passion into religion, but that’s an option that fails for Julie. She tries to find consolation in religion but cannot.

Balzac’s novel isn’t a general statement against marriage (Julie’s friend Louisa does marry in spite of her friend’s advice and is very happy), but it is a cautionary tale about the misery of marriage between two people of varying sensibilities. Julie possibly could have been happy if she’d married a different sort of man. Interestingly Victor seems to grow a little better with age while Julie’s disappointments warp her relationship with her daughter and lead to tragedy.

The plot goes on for far too long and the woman of thirty becomes a bitterly, unhappy woman of fifty who struggles with lifelong disappointments and depression. The plot turns soapy at the end with an implausible coincidence involving pirates.

The idea behind the novel is excellent–Balzac creates a series of snapshots of a woman’s unhappy life, and due to the timing of those snapshots the reader sees the direct cause and effect connection. Balzac’s attack on unhappy marriage and sexual incompatibility must have caused tongues to wag in the salons of Paris. Julie complains that her husband “seeks me too often,” and Balzac poses the question that perhaps Julie’s “abhorrence of passion,” is a result of her “girlish first love” latching on to the first object of her adoration before she knew “the forbidden but frenzied bliss for which some women will renounce all the laws of prudence and the principles of conduct upon which society is based.” Of course, Julie does get to taste that “forbidden but frenzied bliss” only to pay for those moments of madness dearly later.

There are many marvelous passages here even though the plot falls off the deep end by the book’s conclusion, and here’s Julie speaking her mind to a Curé on the subject of marriage–specifically a loveless marriage in which she compares sex between husband and wife to sex between a prostitute and her customers:

You pour scorn on the miserable creatures who sell themselves for a few coins to any passer-by, though want and hunger absolve the brief union; while another union, horrible for quite other reasons, is tolerated, nay encouraged, by society, and a young and innocent girl is married to a man whom she has only met occasionally during the previous three months. She is sold for her whole lifetime. It is true that the price is high! If you allow her no compensation for her sorrows, you might at least respect her, but no, the most virtuous of women cannot escape calumny. This is our fate in its double aspect. Open prostitution and shame; secret prostitution and unhappiness. As for the poor, portionless girls, they may die or go mad, without a soul to pity them. Beauty and virtue are marketable in the bazaar where souls and bodies are bought and sold–in the den of selfishness which you call society.

It’s a wonderful speech, and through Julie’s voice we can hear Balzac loud and clear. But in this impassioned speech Julie seems to forget that her marriage to Victor was not arranged–in fact she insisted upon it against her father’s wishes. She seems to be absolving herself of any personal responsibility now that she faces a life sentences for a decision she made as an inexperienced young girl. In spite of the book’s flaws (it should have ended with Julie at thirty), it’s interesting for its revolutionary view of the misery of married life and its frank approach to married sex.

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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

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The Purse: Balzac

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

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La Grande Bretêche by Balzac

La Grande Bretêche  a short story from Balzac, opens at a dinner party with Monsieur Bianchon telling his rapt audience a tale from his past. In charge of a wealthy patient, Dr. Bianchon has occasion to spend a great deal of time at Vendôme, and there his ramblings led him to a ruin, a house “still standing, though being slowly destroyed by an avenging hand.” Bianchon believes that the story of the house’s neglect “contained a secret,” and he is correct. Enchanted with the house and its romantic setting, the doctor decides to not ask any of the locals the story behind the neglect of this house. He prefers instead to make his own conclusions.

On that spot I wove delightful romances, and abandoned myself to little debauches of melancholy which enchanted me. If I had known the reason–perhaps quite commonplace–of this neglect, I should have lost the unwritten poetry which intoxicate me. To me this refuge represented the most various phases of human life, shadowed with misfortune; sometimes the peace of the graveyard without the dead, who speak in the language of epitaphs; one day I saw in it the home of lepers; another, the house of the Atridae, but, above all, I found there provincial life, with its contemplative ideas, its hour glass existence. I often wept there. I never laughed.

So here is Balzac, the consummate story teller relating a story within a story. We imagine the doctor’s audience still and quiet as he builds suspense with his descriptions of the eerie atmosphere at this beautiful, abandoned estate. Where are the people who lived here? Why is the house falling into ruin? What terrible things occurred here?

One evening when the doctor is at the inn, he is visited by the local notary, a Monsieur Regnault, who informs Bianchon that by wandering in the grounds of La Grande Bretêche he is committing a “misdemeanor.” The notary is the executor of the will of the now deceased Comtesse de Merret, and he explains that he doesn’t want to prosecute Bianchon as he is ignorant of local custom. The notary says that he’d be happy to let Bianchon wander around La Grande Bretêche, but that he must obey the last wishes of the now deceased Comtesse. Bianchon begs the notary to explain, and so the notary tells his story.

At the time of her death, the Comtesse lived at another property, the Château de Merret, and it’s here that she made her will. Her husband, the Comte died in Paris after a life of wild dissipation and a strangely disaffected marriage. The Comtesse’s will decreed that no one was to set foot inside La Grande Bretêche until fifty years after her death. So the mystery only deepens, and Bianchon decides that he has discovered a story “a la Radcliffe.” Then Bianchon’s landlady approaches him and tells her tale and through her Bianchon, Bianchon’s audience and we readers finally learn the secret of the abandoned château.

While La Grande Bretêche isn’t the finest thing ever written by Balzac, this is a good story with build up at every turn. Balzac allows each fictional story-teller (Bianchon, the notary and the landlady) to pick up the narrative, adding details for mounting suspense and mystery. The reference to Radcliffe seems deliberate as the secret of the château is bathed in gothic elements, tragic and cruel. According to Balzac’s biographer, Graham Robb, gothic novels and Radcliffe were very popular in France in the 1820s. Balzac’s early novel L’Heritiere de Birague, which sold for 800 francs, is a gothic tale which follows Radcliffe’s style. This novel, one I’ve yet to read, according to a Balzac resource was attributed to Lord R’Hoone (Balzac writing in collaboration with Auguste Le Poitevin/Le Poitevin de L’ Égreville). Le Poitevin was, Graham Robb argues, both a “midwife” for his role in the early careers of many authors and also a “literary vampire.” Le Poitevin later claimed to have “created” Balzac, and while the two shared a brief collaborative writing period, Balzac went on to write La Comédie Humaine while  Auguste Le Poitevin, by 1840, was the editor of very promising-sounding  Le Corsaire-Satan, a rag Balzac described as a “literary sewage pipe transporting the most revolting calumnies,”  whose unpaid employees included Baudelaire.

Free for the kindle. Translated by Ellen Marriage and Clara Bell.

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Madame Firmiani by Balzac

Balzac’s short story Madame Firmiani isn’t one of his best, but I enjoyed it nonetheless not for what it says about the characters, but for what it says about Balzac. It begins with a rambling preface and leads up to a discussion of the character of a certain Madame Firmiani, a woman who’s the subject of a great deal of speculation and gossip. Perhaps part of the interest is due to the fact that there seems to be no Monsieur Firmiani, or if he exists, he’s conveniently absent. Balzac spends some time discussing the sort of things said about this mysterious woman, and while the various versions of Madame Firmiani are interesting, Balzac shows us that it’s not so much what is said that’s interesting, but that the gossip can be captured and qualified by the type of person who makes the comments. Balzac, that great observer and chronicler of human nature, breaks down the “genus Parisian” into “various species.”  So while “the species Practical” analyses Madame Firmiani according to her worldly goods, the “species Lounger” snobbily discusses her parties and the quality of her tea.

“Oh, Madame Firmiani, my dear fellow! She is one of those adorable women who serve as Nature’s excuse for all the ugly ones she creates. Madame Firmiani is enchanting, and so kind! I wish I were in power and possessed millions that I might_” (here a whisper). “Shall I present you?” The speaker is a youth of the Student species, known for his boldness among men and his timidity in a boudoir.

“Madame Firmiani?” cries another, twirling his cane. “I’ll tell you what I think of her; she is a woman between thirty and thirty-five; faded complexion, handsome eyes, flat figure, contralto voice worn out, much dressed, rather rouged, charming manners; in short, my dear fellow, the remains of a pretty woman who is still worth the trouble of a passion.” This remark is from the species Fop, who has just breakfasted, doesn’t weigh his words, and is about to mount his horse. At that particular moment Fops are pitiless.

The speculation about Madame Firmiani’s character and circumstances is at the heart of this story. It’s 1824, and Monsieur de Bourbonne has traveled to Paris from his country estate in Touraine “to satisfy his curiosity” about the woman who’s somehow or another entangled his nephew and heir, Octave de Camps, in a relationship. Octave “without consulting his uncle had lately sold an estate belonging to him to the Black Band.” Following this alarming incident, a relative, possibly a relative jealous of Octave’s position as sole heir “informed” Monsieur de Bourbonne that Octave who has “wasted his means on a certain Madame Firmiani” is teaching mathematics for a living and waiting for his uncle to die so that he can loot the estate and waste it. Irate, the old man travels to Paris to discover the truth…..

There’s a note that The Black Band–otherwise known as the Bande Noirewas a mysterious association of speculators, whose object was to buy in landed estates, cut them up, and sell them off in small parcels to the peasantry or others.” Reminds me of  Gone-with-the Wind carpetbagging.

The story also showcases Balzac’s love for the female sex. Madame Firmiani is a veritable goddess here–a woman who inspires …well … read the story and you’ll see.

Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley

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Maitre Cornelius by Balzac

Back to Balzac for another tale–this one Maitre Cornelius is set in the 15th century and is a re-read for me. I hadn’t forgotten the story, but it’s peculiar how we pick new things up on a re-read, or in the case of a film, a repeat viewing.  The story (99 pages in my Mondial books edition) opens in the Cathedral of Tours. It’s All Saints Day, 1479, and Marie, Countess Saint-Vallier, a beautiful young, and badly mistreated wife is saying her prayers when she’s approached by a young man who has fallen in love with her and is taking the opportunity to sneak a meeting while her husband is momentarily absent. The husband, we are told, was “a little old man, hunchbacked, nearly bald, savage in expression.” He’s a “stunted orge” who jealously guards his young wife, and bleeds her regularly to keep her weak and compliant. The lovers manage to have a brief moment together in which the young man (we later learn that he is Georges d’Estouteville) tells Marie that he’s going to take a position as an apprentice at the home of Maître Cornelius, “the King’s silversmith.” Lodging there will give him access to Marie whose fortress of a home is right next door. Marie is appalled by the plan as the apprentices of Maître Cornelius have all met a similar, unhappy fate.

The phenomenally wealthy Maître Cornelius Hoogwurst lives the life of recluse with his crone of a sister.  Over the years, they have accepted a number of apprentices, but shortly after taking in these young men, Maître Cornelius has discovered that various jewels have gone missing. Naturally suspicion falls on the newcomers who under torture, eventually confessed and were executed. Now no one seeks to be an apprentice under Maître Cornelius, and due to the fates of his various young apprentices, he’s perceived by the locals as an evil man–possibly a sorcerer.  Balzac describes the homes of the Comte Saint-Vallier and the much-despised silversmith as “two mute dwellings, separated from the others in the same street and standing at the crooked end of it” as seeming to be “afflicted with leprosy.” Of course, both houses are tainted with disease, but it’s mental disease–the disease of jealousy (in the case of Saint-Vallier) and greed in the case of Maître Cornelius.

The love story had only a mild interest for me. Instead I was much more interested in Maître Cornelius, an elderly miser who despises all mankind but respects King Louis XI. In one marvelous segment, Balzac describes a scene in which Georges d’Estouteville, posing as a-would-be apprentice named Philippe, gains entrance into the silversmith’s home and catches Maître Cornelius and his sister at supper:

On the other side of the chimney-piece was a walnut table with twisted legs, on which was an egg in a plate and ten or a dozen little bread-sops, hard and dry and cut with studied parsimony. Two stools placed beside the table, on one of which the old woman sat down, showed that the miserly pair were eating their suppers. Cornelius went to the door and pushed two iron shutters into their place, closing, no doubt, the loopholes through which they had been gazing into the street; then he returned to his seat. Philippe Goulenoire (so called) next beheld the brother and sister dipping their sops into the egg in turn, and with the utmost gravity and the same precision with which soldiers dip their spoons in regular rotation into the mess-pot. This performance was done in silence. But as he ate, Cornelius examined the false apprentice with as much care and scrutiny as if he were weighing an old coin.

Later, King Louis XI enters the story and solves all the problems. Marie is “the best-loved natural daughter of Louis XI,” so she eventually manages to get his intervention in a marriage that has proved disastrous, but apart from solving Marie’s marriage problems, Louis XI also solves the mystery of Maître Cornelius and his many episodes of missing jewels. Louis XI appears as an interesting figure here, soon-to-die, but certainly a cunning fellow who Balzac clearly admires. Later Balzac tells us that Marie’s grand-daughter was the very famous Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of Henri II.

Balzac was a fan of Sir Walter Scott, but there’s a dig here directed towards Scott:

In spite of the singular fancy which possessed the author of Quentin Durward to place the royal castle of Plessis-les-Tours upon a height, we must content ourselves by leaving it exactly where it really was, namely on low land.

Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley

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The Recruit by Balzac

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about reading my way though Balzac is his take on the French Revolution–specifically its fallout and the impact on various characters. History classes follow the dates, the deeds and some of the more famous names, and I grew up with the images of Carry On, Don’t Lose Your Head & Robespierre’s Head of Secret Police, Citizen Camembert  “keeping a watchful eye out for queue jumpers.”

But back to Balzac and his story The Recruit (The Conscript). This is a poignant tale set in 1793–the story of a mother’s love for her son. Madame de Dey, a widow of a Lieutenant-General, a Comte and a Chevalier of the Orders, and the mother of an only son, decided to remain in France during the Revolution. She’s moved to the small town of Carenton “hoping that the influence of the Terror would be little felt there.” Balzac tells us that this was a reasonable supposition as “The Revolution committed but few ravages in Lower Normandy.” Since moving to Carenton, Madame de Dey has found it “advisable to open her house to the principle bourgeois of the town and to the new governmental authorities; trying to make them pleased at obtaining her society, without arousing either hatred or jealousy.” Interesting idea and one that perhaps plays into the idea that these less fervent citizens will be flattered to be invited into her home and rub elbows with a member of the aristocracy.

So we have a delicate scenario. Obviously, Madame de Dey is guillotine material, but she hopes that by establishing relationships with people she normally would have ignored, she will form ties, allay suspicion, and indicate, subtly, that she is ready and willing to accept the new social order. Of course, while Madame de Dey’s strategy is probably the only one open to a woman in her circumstances, nonetheless, she could be inviting a viper into her drawing room. And aren’t all those social evenings laced with feelings of unease, and then if anyone asks questions beyond the lightest social banter, wouldn’t the conversation have a dangerous edge?

Madame de Dey is bravely trying her best. She’s only 38 years old, and still “preserved” Balzac tells us. It’s no wonder then that Madame de Dey’s strategy of ‘keep your friends close but keep your enemies closer’ is working–perhaps working too well. The poor woman has a couple of unwanted suitors sniffing around.

The first four of these personages, being bachelors, courted her with the hope of marriage, furthering their cause by either letting her see the evils they could do her, or those from which they could protect her. The public prosecutor, previously an attorney at Caen, and the manager of the countess’s affairs, tried to inspire her with love by an appearance of generosity and devotion, a dangerous attempt for her. He was the most to be feared among her suitors. He alone knew the exact condition of the property of his former client. His passion was increased by cupidity, and his cause was backed by enormous power, the power of life and death throughout the district.

It’s a horrible position for the young widow. So far, Madame de Dey has juggled these suitors by setting them against each other, but how long can this last? How long before words of love, threats and offers of protection morph into something darker?

I found myself comparing Madame de Dey to Penelope. Penelope was also surrounded by pushy suitors, but in her case she waited for Odysseus to come home, so she spent her days weaving a tapestry–promising to pick a new husband when it was completed, and she spent her nights undoing her daytime work. Madame de Dey, however, longs for her son–not a lover, and she has chosen to stay in France, in spite of great personal danger, for her son’s sake. She knows that if she joins him in exile, all their property will be confiscated, so she imagines that she has made the best choice open to her–her son is safe in exile, and she is safely guarding the property and hoping that in time he will be able to return safely and claim his wealth. Again, this is an interesting strategy, so we see that Madame de Dey is intelligent and capable of conceiving of a long-term strategy.

Of course, since there’s a story here, the story lies in what goes wrong with Madame de Dey’s plan. I really liked how Balzac constructed this because he shows so clearly that you can plan what you want but that plan will always be impacted by the unpredictable actions of other people. In other words, you can plan for what you can see coming. Madame de Dey’s greatest treasure is her son, and she will do anything to keep him safe. It doesn’t sound like it’s too much to ask, does it? And she’s a very sympathetic character–married off young to some nasty old man, and yet somehow she’s come to terms with all the bad stuff in her life. She’s calm, gentle, kind–just a good person–but a woman whose life is swept up in events not of her making.

The story is book-ended by a mystical concept regarding “intellectual space,” the ability to “abolish space in its two forms of Time and Distance,” and “sympathies” that transcend our static notions regarding “the laws of space.”

Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley and FREE for the kindle.

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