La Peau de Chagrin (The Wild Ass’s Skin) (1831)
Honoré de Balzac
Penguin Classics, 288pp
Literature in translation provides interesting reading experiences. I first read Honoré de Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin in a translation by Herbert Hunt (which is the Penguin Classics translation) and over Christmas 2008 read it again in a translation by Ellen Marriage as part of the Thompson Publishing Company’s complete La Comédie Humaine, an eighteen volume set, of which La Peau de Chagrin is the first work. I have read some Balzac, but I am of the suspicion that this will remain my favourite work of his. It lacks the realism of some of his other works – such as La Cousin Bette or Eugénie Grandet – and is part of the Études Philosophiques cycle of La Comédie Humaine. Reading Marriage’s translation about a year after first reading this work, with it still relatively fresh in my mind, I was immediately struck at how a different translation can render a work familiar and yet new; I came to sequences of this work with a sense of excitement of how it would be rendered, and that the feeling that something might alter because of the new language.
Here is the opening paragraph from both:
“Towards the end of the month of October 1829 a young man entered the Palais-Royal just as the gaming-houses opened, agreeably to the law which protects a passion by its nature easily excisable. He mounted the staircase of one of the gambling hells distinguished by the number 36 without too much deliberation.”
“Towards the end of October 1830 a young man entered the Palais-Royal just as the gambling-houses were opening in conformity with the law which protects an essentially taxable passion. Without too much hesitation he walked up the staircase of the gambling-den designated as No.36.”
Similar, yet not. The year is different for starters – the original French tells us “Vers la fin du mois d’octobre dernier” which is simply “at the end of last October”. So the translators have taken its publishing date to provide this extra information – only Marriage has taken, we assume, the fact that the first mention of this book was made in December 1830, and Hunt the publication date of January 1831.
The plot is simple, yet brilliant. One cold Parisian evening Raphaël de Valentin wagers and loses his last coin. In his despair he walks through Paris, to the Seine, in which he intends to drown himself. Only there is a shop, one he has not seen before, and its light brings him in. There he is shown the wild ass’s skin, which the shopkeeper tells de Valentin will grant any wish. He leaves with the skin. The power of the skin is revealed almost immediately, and de Valentin finds himself wealthy beyond dreams.
The Wild Ass’s Skin is split into three sections, the first of which details the above. The second part tells of de Valentin’s passion for Foedora, a beautiful but unobtainable woman, during his impoverished younger days, before he obtained the skin, and of his residence with a mother and her daughter, Pauline. The final part of the novel sees de Valentin having retreated from life, living a solitary lonely life in his mansion. Through chance he meets again Pauline, and when she learns of her role in his demise, she tries to kill herself, and so does he, and in a fiery moment they consummate their love before he dies.
The Wild Ass’s Skin is perhaps Balzac’s most famous work, and certainly the most influential. Oscar Wilde is said to have drawn on it for his Picture of Dorian Gray, and Sigmund Freud identified with de Valentin and the themes of this novel, especially at the end of his own life. Unlike many works of fantasy, this is not overwhelmed by its fantasy, but retains a truthful and grounded reality. We accept the skin and its effects without question, and even de Valentin’s scientific study to discover its power seems credible (though of course we know it cannot be). This is the success of Balzac and the novel, that we can suspend disbelief so easily.
What The Wild Ass’s Skin does best of all is hold a mirror up to French society. I cannot say it better than this: “The novel extrapolates Balzac’s analysis of desire from the individual to society in general; he feared that the world, like Valentin, was losing its way due to material excess and misguided priorities. In the gambling house, the orgiastic feast, the antique shop, and the discussions with men of science, Balzac examines this dilemma in various contexts. The lust for social status to which Valentin is led by Rastignac is emblematic of this excess; the gorgeous but unattainable Foedora symbolizes the pleasures offered by high society.” (Marceau, Felicien. Balzac and His World. Trans. Derek Coltman. New York: The Orion Press, 1966.)
As the British band Blur indicated in their hit Country House: “He’s reading Balzac, knocking back Prozac” to be reading Balzac is to be allowed to wallow, to be consumed by his world view, to give yourself fully . Here is a writer paid by the word and who made sure his books were filled to the brim with them. He allowed digressions, meandering thought and plot, and sometimes seemed to have little regard for plot. That said, The Wild Ass’s Skin shows little of those usual criticisms (it has some faults), and remains a strong, engaging novel, and one of my favourites. Those criticisms become unjust when you realise that Balzac’s scope is the whole of French society – and to do that just simply takes a lot of words. The Wild Ass’s Skin is a short 280ish pages, but is presented as the first novel in this long cycle, The Human Comedy, the story of life.
The Wild Ass’s Skin is a masterpiece of French literature and cannot be recommended enough.