Melmoth réconcilié (Melmoth Reconciled) (1835)
Honoré de Balzac
Thompson Publishing Company, 51pp
Translation by Ellen Marriage
A longer short story from Honoré de Balzac’s La Comédie humaine, from the Études Philosophiques, and a marked improvement over Jésus-Christ en Flandre. As one may have already deduced from the title, this story is a sequel to Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Robert Maturin.
Maturin’s tale, we must remind ourselves, is one of the best works of Gothic fiction, a book that H.P. Lovecraft called “an enormous stride in the evolution of the horror-tale.” It tells the story of John Melmoth, a man who sells his soul to the Devil for another 150 years of life and then spends the rest of his life searching for someone to take over the pact. Melmoth, as a character, has become indicative of much – in Nabokov’s Lolita, Humbert Humbert calls the car he takes Lolita on a journey across America in Melmoth, and Oscar Wilde called himself Sebastian Melmoth during his travels made after his release from prison.
Balzac’s story, written just fifteen years after Maturin’s tale, reveals to us a crooked cashier “of the house of Nucingen and Company, in the Rue Saint-Lazare,” named Castanier. Castanier is a military hero who “wore the ribbon of the Legion of Honor at his button-hole, for he had been a major of dragoons in the time of the Emperor.” Only Castanier has fallen on hard times and is about to forge a signature to steal the money to pay his creditors. As he is about to do so a man appears beside him, an Englishman, who forces Castanier to reconsider. This Englishman is revealed to be John Melmoth. Melmoth offers Castanier his deal with the Devil, and Castanier to save himself accepts, but only after persuasion – Melmoth shows Castanier how he will die by hanging for his crime, and how his daughter will desert him.
Just as in Maturin’s tale, Castanier is tortured by the power this curse brings him – he can have everything, anything, but this does not bring him happiness. This curse mirrors the curse bought upon Raphaël de Valentin in La Peau de Chagrin, when he accepts the power of the shagreen into his life. The tension this develops between Castanier and his daughter is wrought tightly, and breathlessy one sees Castanier begin to unravel his life, the curse wrecking everything, sending him mad.
“”What is all this about ?” said she. “Come, now, promise me that if I had a lover you would still love me as a father; that would be love! Come, now, promise it at once, and give us your fist upon it.”
”I should kill you,” and Castanier smiled as he spoke.”
He loses everything, pushing away even his own blood, even though he has the power to change any event, save anybody, he does not save them.
“”Why?” shouted Castanier, and his voice made the ceiling ring. — “Eh! it is my revenge! Doing evil is my trade!””
Castanier begins to wander, seeking someone to pass the curse onto.
“The torrents of pain, and pleasure, and thought that shook his soul and his bodily frame would have overwhelmed the strongest human being; but in him there was a power of vitality proportioned to the power of the sensations that assailed him. He felt within him a vague immensity of longing that earth could not satisfy. He spent his days on outspread wings, longing to traverse the luminous fields of space to other spheres that he knew afar by intuitive perception, a clear and hopeless knowledge. His soul dried up within him, for he hungered and thirsted after things that can neither be drunk nor eaten, but for which he could not choose but crave. His lips, like Melmoth’s, burned with desire; he panted for the unknown, for he knew all things.”
Melmoth réconcilié reaches a torturous, breathless finale, but then unfortunately undermines itself by taking us away from Castanier and introducing us to the next victim of Melmoth’s curse. For those forty-five or so pages where Castanier is the centre Melmoth réconcilié remains a truly powerful and affecting short story, meditating on life, love, destiny, faith and all those usual Balzacian concerns. Available for free on Project Gutenberg, this is a recommended read.