Tag Archives: La Comédie Humaine

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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The Exiles by Balzac

“I like harboring lords no better than harbouring wizards.”

I’ll admit that I was disappointed when I began Balzac’s story The Exiles (Les Proscrits) and discovered, within the first sentence that it is set in 1308. I haven’t been that crazy about some of Balzac’s historical stuff as the stories seem fairly light on human character, and that’s really where Balzac excels. Then as the story progressed, I began to think I had been judgmental; perhaps this was going to be a decent story after all. It wasn’t. But even as I acknowledge that complaint, the story is not without merit for it gives us a wonderful glimpse of Paris–14th century Paris, superstitious, violent, grubby, and, actually, not very pleasant at all.

In the year 1308 few houses were yet standing on the island formed by the alluvium and sand deposited by the Seine above the Cite, behind the Church of Notre-Dame. The first man who was so bold as to build on this strand, then liable to frequent floods, was a constable of the watch of the City of Paris, who had been able to do some service to their Reverences the Chapter of the Cathedral; and in return the Bishop leased him twenty-five perches of land, with exemptions from all feudal dues or taxes on the buildings he might erect.

So who is this lucky home-owner? None other than Joseph Tirechair who is also rather charmingly known as Tear Flesh for rather obvious reasons. He rents out two rooms in his home to lodgers, and this situation is causing him no small amount of worry because he’s convinced that they “smell of scorching.” He suspects the older lodger with his dark complexion “scorched and tanned by hell-fires,” to be a necromancer (in reality he’s a swarthy Italian), and the younger lodger, Godefroid, is also suspect because he is “too pretty” and always seems to looking up at the stars. Tear flesh also thinks that his two lodgers were in cahoots with a “heretic jade from Denmark or Norway” who was recently burned at the stake.

A great scene takes place between Tear Flesh and his wife, and it’s amusing to see this man, one of the scourges of Paris get into a domestic tiff with his wife. He tells her that the tenants have to go, but she doesn’t want to lose the money they bring in to the household. At first she argues with her husband, and it’s amusing to read how she tells her husband to back off of her domain, but once she learns his fears, she too becomes concerned.

At around the story’s halfway mark, the two tenants attend a lecture at the Rue du Fouarre–specifically, the “old School des Quatre Nations.” Here Doctor of Mystical Theology of the University of Paris, Sigier gives a lecture. This makes for some dry reading–although the word Illuminati appears at one point. Wikipedia gives 1776 as the date for the founding of this secret society, and here’s Balzac writing it into the 14th century. The Exiles shows a dynamic yet primitive society in flux: there’s a vast contrast between the Constable recalling fond memories of the last witch burning along with his concerns that he’s harbouring a couple of sorcerers under his roof and the eager scholarship of Mystical Theology. Makes me glad I didn’t live in the 14th century.

The rest of the story includes what seems to be a lot of mystical rambling on the subject of heaven and hell by the older lodger as he tells his story to Godefroid. There seems to be little relevance to the story, but then Balzac finishes with a shocker of sorts. Anyway, not Balzac’s best by any means, and for this reader, the domestic scenes between Tear Flesh and his wife were the best part of the story.

Translated by Clara Bell and James Waring.

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Gambara by Balzac

I thoroughly enjoyed Balzac’s novella Gambara–a tale that runs to almost 90 pages in my NYRB edition packaged with a companion piece of sorts, The Unknown Masterpiece . In Gambara, it’s  New Year’s Eve 183o, and a wealthy, young Milanese nobleman is strolling in Paris on the look out for love and adventure. We’re told that Count Andrea Marcosini “is banished from his country, where several liberal escapades had rendered him persona non grata to the Austrian government.” (Of course, I’m thinking about Casanova.) The Count, due to his wealth, is not in hardship and is viewing his exile rather like an extended holiday. He expects to return in a couple of years and face no long-lasting consequences.  

On New Year’s Eve, the Count spies a poorly dressed, but pretty woman, and he begins following her, not bothering to hide his interest. Part of the Count’s attraction to the woman springs from the sense that the woman suffers conflicting emotions. She notes his presence and may even seem interested but at the same time, she blushes and seems annoyed by the Count’s attentions. Her responses spark “unruly dreams which were exciting him,” and I think that’s a polite 19th century way of saying that the Count was enjoying sexual fantasies about the woman as he follows her.

“For after all,” he said to himself, “if she was avoiding me and wanted to put me off the scent, that means she’s attracted to me. With women of her kind, resistance is a proof of love.”

The woman’s poverty and tatty clothing seem to be erotic stimuli rather than a turn-off. The first step of this adventure ends when the woman slips inside a building and the Count discovers that she appears to live in some squalid lodging connected to a table d’hôte, and again, this very squalidness adds to the adventure and turns the Count on:

He wanted her in that very house he had seen her enter. “Am I enslaved by vice?” he asked himself, with some alarm. 

Of course, with this powerful attraction eating away at the Count’s peace of mind, he returns to the rue Froidmanteau and while he wants to see the woman again, he decides a sly way to discover more would be to dine at the table d’hôte. Served by fellow countryman, Signora Giardini, the Count finally meets the object of his sexual obsession, Signora Marianna Gambara along with the annoying encumbrance of a husband. According to his host and chef, Giardini, many men have tried to seduce the beautiful Signora Gambara but all have failed. She remains loyal to her husband–in spite of the fact that he earns no money and is an eccentric musician.

The Count is intrigued by the Gambaras, and dining with Giardini in dingy, crude conditions allows him to monitor the object of his desire safely. Signora Gambara, of course, knows that the Count is there for her, but her husband, completely “mad” according to Giardini, is blissfully unaware of anything but his music. The Count is in a unique position, financially, to help both the Gambaras and the chef, Giardini, for both the musician Gambara and the chef, Giardini are idealists and will suffer nothing less than perfection. What torture, then that both men have difficulties with their respective trades and passions. Giardini, for example, boasts he serves “the best table in Paris”:

Yes, eccellenza, a quarter of an hour from now you’ll learn the sort of man I am. I’ve introduced refinements into Italian cooking which will astound you. I am a Neapolitan, eccellenza, which means I am a born chef. But what use is instinct without knowledge? Knowledge! I’ve spent thirty years acquiring knowledge, and you see where it’s brought me. Mine is the story of all men of talent! My discoveries, my experiments have ruined three restaurants in succession, in Naples, in Parma, in Rome. Today, now that I’m reduced to making a trade of my art, I indulge my ruling passions more than ever before. I serve these poor refugees some of my favorite dishes–and that’s how I ruin myself!  

If I were the Count about to eat Giardini’s food, that comment about ruining three restaurants would have made me nervous. After all, there are several ways to interpret Giardini’s complaint as the Count is about to discover.

Curiously Giardini’s table seems crowded with idealists: a mediocre composer who’d like to write operas, a deaf orchestra director, exiled political radical Ottoboni, a journalist doomed to obscure papers because he refuses to sensationalize, and then, of course, Signor Gambara who has a very special problem….

The Count, a practiced seducer, realizes that Signora Gambara worships and protects her husband and so with no small amount of craftiness, the Count lays siege to the wife through courting her husband. But that’s enough of the plot. I thoroughly enjoyed the story for its exploration of human nature, and Balzac shows that giving people what they say they want doesn’t solve problems. Is the Count happy, for example, with Signora Gambara, or is desire directed towards her as an unattainable object? Will Giardini be happy creating endless dishes in a situation in which resources are not a concern? Perhaps idealists are never meant to function in a less-than-perfect world. Or then again, perhaps Idealism offers a safe refuge for the talentless and those whose talent is hampered by other issues. There’s a pleasurable cynicism to this story seen mainly through the way the Count hunts Signora Gambara, and the way in which, through Balzac’s intelligent mind, we see the consequences of his characters achieving that which they desire the most.

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The Unknown Masterpiece by Balzac

Back to Balzac for the story, The Unknown Masterpiece–a story that found its way into the Jacques Rivette film, La Belle Noiseuse (1991).  This is a story about three artists, and I read the NYRB edition which includes another story, Gambara. To the two, I preferred the latter story, but more of that in another post.

unknown masterpieceThe Unknown Masterpiece is less than 40 pages in my edition, and the story opens in 1612 with a young, poor artist, Nicolas Poussin pacing in front of the home of a famous painter, Porbus, the court painter of Henri IV. Perhaps he wouldn’t have had the courage to knock at the painter’s door, but Poussin is passed on the stairs by a very elderly man who is admitted into the painter’s residence, and Poussin drifts in too.

While Poussin is in awe of being in the presence of Porbus, a man whose talent he admires, the elderly man, an artist named Frenhofer, doesn’t exactly lavish praise on the paintings. According to Frenhofer, the paintings may be anatomically correct, but they lack life:

The old man sniffed. “Good? … Yes and no. Your lady is assembled nicely enough, but she’s not drawn alive. You people think you’ve done it all once you’ve drawn a body correctly and put everything where it belongs, according to the laws of anatomy! You fill in your outline with flesh tones mixed in advance on your palette, carefully keeping one side darker than the other, and because you glance now at a naked woman standing on a table, you think you’re copying nature–you call yourself painters and suppose you’ve stolen god’s secrets! … Brrr! A man’s not a great poet just because he knows a little grammar and doesn’t violate usage! Look at your saint, Porbus! At first glance she seems quite admirable, but look again and you can see she’s pasted on the canvas–you could never walk around her. She’s a flat silhouette, a cutout who could never turn around or change position.

Frenhofer, a man of strong opinions, demonstrates his theories on a painting that belongs to the young artist Poussin, and the seemingly slight alternations he enacts make a convincing argument. Poussin’s ‘good’ painting is transformed into something magnificent, “a picture steeped in light.”

Frenhofer invites Poussin and Porbus back to his studio, and while there, the men admire a portrait of Frenhofer’s model. Frenhofer admits that he’s “failed to find [is] a flawless woman,” and later Poussin offers Gillette, his lover and his model to Frenhofer….

The intro by Arthur C. Danto states that Poussin and Pourbus were two very real artists, and that the latter was “the leading portraitist of his era.” Danto argues that the three artists “are, so to speak, the spirits of Past, Present, and Future.” I didn’t interpret the characters in the same way–to me they were three artists who are at various points in their respective careers. With the appearance of Gillette, Balzac introduces the theme of the artist’s sacrifice to Art, but there’s another theme here–the Quest of Idealism. Gambara also explores the exhausting possibilities of Idealism, so the pairing of these two stories in one volume is appropriate.

The Unknown Masterpiece asks the questions: “What is art?” and “What is a masterpiece?” “Would we recognize a masterpiece if we saw it?” and finally “Who decides if something is a masterpiece?”  By this point in the story, I thought of Andy Warhol’s Oxidation Paintings (Piss Paintings)–one, which according to an internet source, sold for $1,889,000 back in 2008. For these paintings, canvases were prepared with copper paint and then urinated on with this result:oxidation painting

Ah, what price art!

But back to something truly beautiful–the Girl with the Pearl Earring–a painting I recently saw which is, btw, much more beautiful than expected and something that Frenhofer would admire. The young girl who posed for the painting seems very much alive

Her eyes seemed moist to me, her flesh was alive, the locks of her hair stirred … She breathed

girl with the pearl earring

Translated by Richard Howard

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The Red Inn by Balzac

The Red Inn (L’Auberge Rouge), a short story from Balzac, is a seemingly simple tale that asks the question: how does one accept a fortune that is gained on blood–a fortune that is not morally yours?

This tale begins at the home of a Parisian banker who is entertaining friends and business acquaintances with dinner. Included in the guests is a German named Hermann who is asked to tell the guests a story over dessert:

At this moment the guests were in that happy state of laziness and silence which follows a delicious dinner, especially if we have presumed too far on our digestive powers. leaning back in their chairs, their wrists lightly resting on the edge of the table, they were indolently playing with the gilded blades of their dessert-knives. When a dinner comes to this declining moment some guests will be seen to play with a pear seed; others roll crumbs of bread between their fingers and thumbs; lovers trace indistinct letters with fragments of fruit; misers count the stones on their plate and arrange them as a manager marshals his supernumeraries at the back of the stage. These are the little gastronomic felicities which Brillat-Savarin, otherwise so complete an author, overlooked in his book. The footmen had disappeared. The dessert was like a squadron after a battle: all the dishes were disabled, pillaged, damaged

It’s so easy to imagine this scene with the satisfied guests around the table, laden with overly-full, heavy stomachs and loathe to move. Taking a pinch of snuff, the German begins his tale which rather appropriately involves two young Frenchmen in Germany. The year is 1799. The two men, Prosper Magnan and the other named “Wilhelm” (the story teller claims to have forgotten the name of the second man) have been removed from medical school and conscripted into the army as assistant-surgeons. They reach the town of Anderbach at nightfall and decide to spend the night at an inn that is painted red, aptly named The Red Inn. The inn is full, but the innkeeper gives up his own bed to the two men. Shortly afterwards a German merchant arrives also seeking shelter. A meal and a few drinks later, the merchant spills the information that he travels with one hundred thousand francs….

That’s as much of the story as I will reveal, but let’s just say that there’s an ironic twist of fate, and since this is Balzac, expect human greed to play a large part in acts that unfold. Conscience, however, plays an even bigger role with more than one character, and we see how conscience can direct a person’s actions–or even lead in one case to inaction and indecision. I liked the way this story was after-dinner entertainment while the guests digested their meal. Apart from the coincidences, it was quite believable and wasn’t marred with over-the-top dramatics.

Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley and FREE for the kindle.

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The Magic Skin by Balzac

Back to Balzac for The Magic Skin (La Peau de Chagrin) also known as The Wild Ass’s Skin, a novel which begins with Valentin, a young man in despair and contemplating suicide. This is one of those be-careful-what-you-wish-for stories. It’s October 1829, he’s spent the evening in a “gambling hell,” and Balzac gives us some marvelous descriptions of this “house of pleasure.”

As you enter a gaming-house the law despoils you of your hat at the outset. Is it by way of a parable, a divine revelation? Or by exacting some pledge or other, is not an infernal compact implied? Is it done to compel you to preserve a respectful demeanor towards those who are about to gain money of you? Or must the detective, who squats in our social sewers, know the name of your hatter, or your own, if you happen to have written it on the lining inside? Or, after all, is the measurement of your skull required for the compilation of statistics as to the cerebral capacity of gamblers? The executive is absolutely silent on this point. But be sure of this, that though you have scarcely taken a step towards the tables, your hat no more belongs to you now than you belong to yourself. Play possesses you, your fortune, your cap, your cane, your cloak.

Inside the gambling den, mingling with those there for diversion and those there simply because they cannot bear to leave, the young man takes his last piece of gold and bets on black. One savvy customer, an Italian, anticipating the young man’s bad luck, bets on the red. The young man loses, and the croupier correctly notes that the gold coin was the “last cartridge.” Another customer notes that now the loser will “go and drown himself,” and that’s exactly what he intends to do. He exits the casino and walks along the Seine. But even here, Valentin won’t be left in peace. An old woman who suspects his intention cackles at him, and Valentin decides to wait until it’s darker to throw himself into the cold and dirty water. To kill the time, he enters a shop that sells antiquities. It’s a wonderful shop, but it has a disorienting effect on Valentin.

At a first glance the place presented a confused picture in which every achievement, human and divine, was mingled. Crocodiles, monkeys, and serpents stuffed with straw grinned at glass from church windows, seemed to wish to bite sculptured hands, to chase lacquered work, or to scramble up chandeliers. A Sevres vase, bearing Napoleon’s portrait by Mme. Jacotot, stood beside a sphinx dedicated to Sesostris. The beginnings of the world and the events of yesterday were mingled with grotesque cheerfulness. A kitchen jack leaned against a pyx, a republican sabre on a mediaeval hackbut. Mme du Barry, with a star above her head, naked, and surrounded by a cloud, seemed to look longingly out of Latour’s pastel at an Indian chibook, while she tried to guess the purpose of the spiral curves which wound towards her. Instruments of death, poniards, curious pistols, and disguised weapons had been flung down pell-mell among the paraphernalia of daily life; porcelain tureens, Dresden plates, translucent cups from China, old salt-cellars, comfit-boxes belonging to feudal times. A curved ivory ship sped full sail on the back of a motionless tortoise.

There are several pages describing the shop’s artifacts, and it seems that these artifacts, these lost treasures increase in value and rarity on each subsequent floor of the shop, until, at last, there is too much to absorb. The shop’s ancient owner shows Valentin a “talisman,” a piece of shagreen that according to its owner, will grant all Valentin’s wishes, but there’s a drawback; with every wish the skin shrinks and that the wishes will be fulfilled at “the expense of the young man’s life.” Valentin grabs the skin and makes the wish for a “royal banquet.” Valentin refuses to heed the old man’s warnings and leaves the shop with the piece of skin. he’s no sooner outside of the building when he runs into some friends who have great news: a rich banker is funding a newspaper, and Valentin  is dragged off to the celebratory party. The rest of Part I is spent detailing the feast or “orgy” as it’s called, and I’ll admit that my mind wandered a bit during this part. The orgy invitees are surreal and interesting at times, but this section of the novel seemed, for this reader, a little too long–although I appreciated the soulless women who could seamlessly have stepped from Balzac’s novel into noir fiction.  

The novel includes two more sections: The Woman Without a Heart which is the back story to why Valentin was suicidal the night he attended the gambling house, and the third and final section is The Death Agony. We find Valentin, now a wealthy Marquis, surrounded by faithful servants who, by anticipating every whim, ensure that he doesn’t have to make wishes that will shrink the skin any further.

The Magic Skin, and incidentally my free copy for the Kindle was translated by Ellen Marriage, is strongly Faustian. Valentin prizes and covets wealth and power,  and while he achieves his wishes, we see that his heart’s desires come at a terrible cost.  In the Balzac scheme of things, the novel includes one of Balzac’s favourite themes: the corrupting force of money & insatiable greed, and while I liked it, I don’t rank it near his best. Le Peau de Chagrin was initially published in two volumes and sold for 1,135 francs in 1831. According to Balzac’s biographer, André Maurois, “to make quite sure of favorable reviews, he wrote some of them himself.”

In these two volumes the talent of M. de Balzac achieves the stature of genius (La Mode)

We have as much friendship as admiration for M. de Balzac–signed Comte Alex de B

I couldn’t help thinking about the recent scandals involving Amazon reviews with authors giving stellar reviews to their own work using fake names and on some occasions writing poisonous reviews of literary enemies. 1831 was a turning point for Balzac’s career. He earned a total of 14, 291 francs for various work, yet by the end of the year “his debts had increased by 6,000 francs.” By the end of 1831, he owed 15,000 francs to various sources and an additional 45,000 francs to his mother. André Maurois says that Balzac was “incapable of resisting temptation,” and he tells us of “enormous” bills for champagne and a tailor’s bill for 631 francs. Maurois explains that Balzac ‘had a horror’ (quote from Maurois) “of the solemn imbecilities indulged in by the English with their vaunted sangfroid.” So we see success and unbridled spending on a collision coursea fateful and tragic pattern that was to continue until Balzac’s death in 1850.

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Balzac nailed it.

“I have learned so much practicing my profession! I have seen a father die in a garret without a sou or a stitch of clothing, abandoned by two daughters to whom he’d given 40,000 pounds income! I have seen wills burned. I have seen mothers rob their children; husbands steal from their wives; wives use love to kill their husbands or drive them mad–in order to live in peace with a lover. I have seen women teach their legitimate children tastes that will surely be the death of them, while favouring some love child. I cannot tell you everything I have seen because I have seen crimes that justice is powerless to rectify. In the end, none of the horrors that novelists believe they’ve invented can compare to the truth. You’ll soon become acquainted with such charming things yourself; as for me, I am moving to the country with my wife. I am sick of Paris.”

This is a speech made by the lawyer Derville to his clerk Godeschal at the very end of Balzac’s novella Colonel Chabert. In the first speech, taken from the book, those familiar with Balzac can identity some of the characters Derville refers to. There’s a similar speech in the film version, but it takes place much earlier in the film, and in this scene Derville (Fabrice Luchini) speaks to Chabert (Gerard Depardieu).

“Lawyers see worse things than writers can invent. I’ve seen wills burned, mothers despoil their lawful children on behalf of those bred in adultery, wives use their husbands’ love to murder them or drive them mad so as to live with their lovers. I’ve seen ugly quarrels over still-warm corpses. I have seen crimes, Sir, that human justice is powerless to punish. Our offices are sewers that no one can clean.”

The speech is altered but we get the point: Derville, in his professional capacity as a lawyer, has witnessed some horrendous acts of human behaviour.

Balzac’s novella is the story of a man who arrives in Paris claiming to be Colonel Chabert–one of Napoleon’s trusted soldiers who fell at the battle of Eylau. It’s been years since the battle, and the man who claims to be Chabert argues that due to his injuries he was unable to return earlier. Now back in Paris to claim his estate, he finds that his wife, a former prostitute, has married Count Ferraud, a Restoration society social climber. Since he can’t get his wife back, Chabert wants the return of his millions accumulated during Napoleon’s reign, but his wife is loath to give up a penny–plus to acknowledge Chabert’s claim will render the children she has with Count Ferraud bastards, the issue of a polygamous marriage. And this is where the lawyer Derville comes in…

I saw the film in 1994, and it remains one of my favourite films of all time–the acting, the scenery, the story are all incredible, but there’s something about the quote from Balzac’s novel (and the speech in the film version) that sticks with me. A day doesn’t go by without recalling these 2 scenes–one literary and the other cinematic. 1994 was some time ago–almost 20 years, and in this passage of time, I’ve seen some of the things Derville/Balzac describes.  I’ve known wills to be destroyed and the frantic post death looting of estates. I’ve seen wives longing for their diseased husbands to die, I’ve seen husbands dump their dying wives, I’ve seen husbands stealing from their wives, children stealing from their ancient parents, and I’ve seen people driven mad by their spouses. Ok, no garrets and the illegitimate thing doesn’t translate well to today’s world, but bottom line, Balzac nailed the “sewers” of human behaviour. Put money in the equation, and morality goes out the window.

And this brings me to Derville. Why does Derville decide to champion Chabert’s cause? Is this just a whimsical decision? I don’t think so. When Derville meets Chabert, he has just won “300 francs at cards,” and he tells Chabert “I can certainly use half of that to make a man happy.” He gives Chabert a daily allowance of 100 sous a day while he investigates the legitimacy of Chabert’s claim. Once Derville establishes the facts, he contacts Colonel Chabert’s wife who is now the Countess Ferraud, and the games begin….

Derville seems partly motivated by altruism and partly by curiosity. Does he want “justice“–whatever that is in this complex case to prevail? As he tells his clerk:

We see the same ill feelings repeated again and again, never corrected. Our offices are gutters that cannot be cleansed.

Himadri over at The Argumentative Old Git recently wrote a blog post about a passage from literature that he holds dear, and he suggested that others do the same. This is my contribution. Perhaps my choice isn’t so contemplative or as beautiful as Himadri’s passage from Anna Karenina, but my choice puts my life in perspective. I’m often told that I’m cynical, but then I think of Derville–one of my literary heroes and silently shrug. No wonder I admire Balzac’s work.

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The Hated Son by Balzac

Given the sheer volume of Balzac’s work, it stands to reason that there’s a variance in quality. I discovered the same sort of swing in quality in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, so I shouldn’t be too surprised to be disappointed in Balzac’s novella The Hated Son which was far too sentimental for my tastes. And that’s not mentioning the drama which drags this story into soap opera territory. How can I forget lines like this:

Die, then, both of you!” he cried. “You, vile abortion, the proof of my shame–and you,” he said to Gabrielle, “miserable strumpet with the viper tongue, who has poisoned my house.”

Balzac’s story is built around an interesting idea–the suspicion of illegitimacy, which is still an issue these days, but back in 1591 when the eldest son was supposed to inherit the castle, title and lands, legitimacy was central to the continuance of the so-called ‘great line.’ And this brings me to Comte d’Herouville and his poor little wife Jeanne, who when the story begins, goes into labour when her pregnancy is only of 7 months duration. Perhaps if this were a love match, there would be no problem, or just a few scurrilous rumours that could do no damage, but the Comte knew that Jeanne loved another when the marriage was arranged, and then the Comte isn’t a nice man:

Implacable as the war then going on between the Church and Calvinism, the Count’s forehead was threatening even while he slept. Many furrows, produced by the emotions of a warrior life, gave it a vague resemblance to the vermiculated stone which we see in the buildings of that period; his hair, like the whitish lichen of old oaks, gray before its time, surrounded without grace a cruel brow, where religious intolerance showed its passionate brutality. The shape of the aquiline nose, which resembled the beak of a bird of prey, the black and crinkled lids of the yellow eyes, the prominent bones of a hollow face, the rigidity of the wrinkles, the disdain expressed in the lower lip, were all expressive of ambition, despotism, and power, the more to be feared because the narrowness of the skull betrayed an almost total absence of intelligence, and a mere brute courage devoid of generosity. The face was horribly disfigured by a large transversal scar which had the appearance of a second mouth on the right cheek.

Balzac is treading into phrenology territory in his description of the Comte, and one of the other tidbits we pick up about the Comte is that on top of everything else, he’s none too clean.

The fifty-year-old Comte at one point loved a woman known as La Belle Romaine (I couldn’t stop thinking of lettuce), but we are told about his “successes in gallantry” (translation: score): “he owed them to the terror inspired by his cruelty.” A loaded statement. How can gallantry and cruelty go in the same sentence when discussing the Comte’s success in love? I’m guessing that the Comte was a brute and took what he wanted, and for the purposes of the story, that includes Jeanne who is coerced into marriage by the Comte’s promise to save Jeanne’s lover, a Huguenot if she agrees to wed the Comte.  And so in this manner, Jeanne, one of richest heiresses in France became the bride of a man she loathes.

So the marriage begins badly and only becomes worse. A terrified Jeanne, who has already received a warning from her husband that she’d better not give birth before the 9-month mark, gives birth to a puny male child 7 months after her wedding day. A “bonesetter” named Beauvouloir is called to the Comtesse’s bedchamber. He’s a strange character–part opportunist, not exactly what you would call a ‘good’ man by  any means and yet Balzac calls him “the least bad man in Normandy” which doesn’t say a lot for the local population.

The baby’s name is Etienne, and the rest of the story concerns his fate. To add a plot twist, Beauvouloir is in love with Gertrude, the bastard child of the Comte d’Herouville and his abandoned mistress La Belle Romaine. Gertrude grew up in a convent and it’s there that Beauvouloir met her and fell in love. This coincidence eventually constructs the story’s central dilemma.

Balzac’s great observations on human nature seem to be missing here, and instead the unsubtle story relies on drama and hysterics. With victimhood branded on her forehead, Jeanne isn’t a particularly interesting character. This would have been a lot more interesting story if she’d possessed some guile and was capable of manipulating the Comte on some level, but the Comte and his wife, are unfortunately, created in bold shades of black and white. The most curious character here is Beauvouloir, and yet Balzac doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with this man. There are hints of devious self-serving decisions, and yet Balzac leaves this largely unexplored.

Translated by Katherine Wormeley

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Catherine de Medici by Balzac

“Hers was virile power, dishonoured neither by the terrible amours of Isabella nor by those, even more terrible, though less known of Marie de’ Medici.”

Given Balzac’s fascination with women, I’m not too surprised that he wrote about  Catherine de Medici. I was surprised, however, to find that some of this piece is more or less an apologia. Given her nicknames were Madame Snake (Serpent), the Black Queen and Jezebel (I’d argue that the latter was ill-deserved), I expected some really juicy scenes involving Catherine–perhaps one scene of her peering through one of the peepholes she had made  as she spied on her wandering hubbie spending an amorous moment with his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. Or perhaps a scene of Catherine organising the delivery of poison to one of her enemies. And then there are also infinite possibilities with the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Instead, Balzac seems to admire Catherine, and while there’s no argument that she was an incredibly strong woman, as a human being, she left a lot to be desired.

According to Balzac’s biographer, André Maurois, “after the 1830 revolution,” Balzac essentially believed in a strong monarch and that “absolute rule by a legitimate monarch was the best system of government.” But Balzac was a complex man, and he also admired Napoleon:

A man who is depicted with his arms folded, but who did everything! The greatest power ever known, the most concentrated, the most incisive, the most astringent of all powers. … A man who could do everything because he willed everything … arbitrary or just, as the case demanded–the true king!

Balzac seems to be saying that a king’s legitimacy is found in the raw material that makes the man or in the case of Catherine de Medici–the woman. Was the raw material in Catherine de Medici good or bad? Is it possible to be a ‘good’ king or queen (whatever that means) and still be a horrible human being? These days kings and queens are expensive, high-maintenance puppets whose continued justification seems rooted in tradition and tourism, but back in Catherine’s time, it didn’t hurt your job security if you were ruthless and capable of striking your enemies hard and fast if they gave you as much as a dirty look.

In Catherine de Medici, Balzac begins with a few statements about how history has been unfair to Catherine:

In France, and that, too,  during the most serious epoch of modern history, no woman, unless it be Brunehaut or Fredegonde, has suffered from popular error so much as Catherine de’ Medici; whereas Marie de’ Medici, all of whose actions were prejudicial to France, has escaped the shame that ought to cover her name. Marie de’ Medici wasted the wealth amassed by Henri IV; she never purged herself of the charge of having known of the king’s assassination; her intimate was d’Eperon, who did not ward off Ravillac’s blow, and who was proved to have known the murderer personally for a long time. Marie’s conduct was such that she forced her son to banish her from France, where she was encouraging her other son, Gaston, to rebel; and the victory Richelieu at last won over her (on the Day of the Dupes) was solely due to the discovery the Cardinal made, and imparted to Louis XIII., of secret documents relating to the death of Henri IV.

Catherine de’ Medici, on the contrary, saved the crown of France; she maintained the royal authority in the midst of circumstances under which  more than one great prince would have succumbed. Having to make head against factions and ambitions like those of the Guises and the house of Bourbon, against men such as the two cardinals of Lorraine, the two Balafres, and the two Condes, against the queen Jeanne d’Albret, Henri IV, the Connetable de Montmorency, Calvin, the three Colignys, Theodore de Beze, she needed to possess and to display the rare qualities and precious gifts of a statesman under the mocking fire of the Calvinist press.

I’d add the name Lucrezia Borgia to that list of names of those who suffered from “popular error.”

Balzac then follows with a summary of Catherine’s life. Reading it over, I had to acknowledge that as a 14-year-old, sent from Italy to the court of France, Catherine had a number of difficult situations to surmount, and Balzac argues she was intelligent enough to bide her time and not always show her true hand. I can’t disagree with that.

I ran into problems with Balzac when he offers justifications for Catherine’s behaviour:

All power, legitimate or illegitimate, must defend itself when attacked; but the strange thing is that where the people are held heroic in their victory over the nobility, power is called murderous in its duel with the people. If it succumbs after its appeal to force, power is then called imbecile.

Balzac seems to be arguing that ‘the people’ vs. the ruling power are held to different standards of behaviour with the latter, according to Balzac, getting the short end of the stick when it comes to moral justification of the use of force. Since he brought in the word “nobility,” he appears to be referring to ‘the mob’ of the Revolution whose violent actions against the ruling class are seen as “heroic.” On the other hand, he argues that when “power” fights back, actions against the people are called “murderous.” I thought of two revolutions which targeted the nobility: The Russian and the French. Balzac was long dead by the time the Russian Revolution occurred, but the French Revolution was recent history for him, so perhaps those words “murderous” and “heroic” were tossed around in the popular culture of his day. There are many points to be made here–rulers or governments killing or punishing people in an unfair contest of power, people frustrated by the abuse and repression of the rulers, etc., but now in the 21st century, do we see the actions of the French Revolution as “heroic?” Then Balzac makes a strange statement:

The massacres of the Revolution have replied to the massacres of Saint-Bartholomew. The people, become king, have done against the king and the nobility what the king and the nobility did against the insurgents of the sixteenth century. Therefore the popular historians, who know very well that in a like case the people will do the same thing over again, have no excuse for blaming Catherine de’ Medici and Charles IX.

That sounds like justification of the bloodshed of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, or is it a vilification of the revolution? Or then again is Balzac trying to go for something more subtle here? Personally, although I don’t think he’s entirely successful, I think it’s the latter.

Balzac’s defense of Catherine de’ Medici is followed by three stories: The Calvinistic Martyr, The Ruggieris’ Secret, and The Two Dreams. I could have done without the torture details of the first story. The second story is a tale of court intrigue which involves the occult. The third story takes place in 1786 at the home of Bodard de Saint-James, a Parisian financier. There are two guests–a lawyer and a surgeon–who don’t fit in with the rest of the company. During the course of the evening, the lawyer recalls a conversation he swears he had with Catherine de Medici, “a grand shade,” in which she justifies the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

“You call that a crime which was only a misfortune,” she said. “The enterprise, being ill-managed, failed; the benefit we expected for France, for Europe, for the Catholic Church was lost. Impossible to forsee that. Our orders were ill executed; we did not find as many Montlucs as we needed. Posterity will not hold us responsible for the failure of communications, which deprived our work of the unity of movement which is essential to all great strokes of policy; that was our misfortune! if one the 25th of August not the shadow of a Huguenot had been left in france, I should go down to the uttermost posterity as a noble image of providence.”

And there’s a lot more of Catherine’s speech, but it boils down to Catherine’s argument that she should have done a better job of wiping out the Huguenots, and that allowing a few to live was a horrible mistake as the decision to spare some Huguenots “caused ten times more blood to flow in France.”  The man who relates Catherine’s fictional summary of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre is none other than Robespierre, and so we can conclude that he’s taking a tip from Catherine de’ Medici when it comes to slaughtering one’s enemies in an ends-justifies-the-means sort of way.

Anyway, a difficult piece from Balzac, the first two stories are fairly straightforward, but with the preamble and the third story, by tieing in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre to the Revolution, and Catherine advising Robespierre to show no mercy when it comes to slaughtering one’s enemies, Balzac skirts dangerously close to condoning a heinous event that left thousands slaughtered in the streets. Even that old hypocrite, Ivan the Terrible, an expert in his own right on the slaughter of innocents, expressed “horror” at the mass killings.

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