Posts Tagged ‘Honoré de Balzac’

La Bourse (The Purse) (1832)
Honoré de Balzac
J.M. Dent & Co, 34pp
Translated by Clara Bell

La Comédie Humaine is full of short stories, and The Purse is another. I am still in the Scènes de la vie privée (Scenes of Private Life), though in some editions it has been placed in the Scènes de la vie parisienne (Scenes of Parisian Life).

The young painter, Hippolyte Schinner, falls from his stool and is knocked unconscious. His fall is heard by his two neighbours, Adélaïde Leseigneur and her mother Madame de Rouville, who come to his rescue. Naturally, Hippolyte falls in love with Adélaïde, and during a courtship of her begins to notice the poverty that these two women are in pains to conceal. He meets two of their friends, the Comte de Kergarouet and the Chevalier du Halga, who regularly play cards with the women and seem to deliberately lose. How is it these men of title take care of two women with so little?

What Balzac does in La Bourse is quite ingenious: he takes as his subject the life of an artist, and has his artist use his skills to learn the secrets these women hold. On one visit Hippolyte loses his purse, and he cannot believe at first that Adélaïde would steal it, but eventually it becomes clear that she must have, but why? He begins to notice the sheer level of poverty these women are in, and it becomes clear: they steal because they have to. But has our painter missed one crucial detail in this picture? Through this mystery, delicately portrayed by Balzac, we slowly uncover a secret in the heart of French society: the treatment of wives of fallen soldiers: the forgotten victims of Napoleon. Madame de Rouville’s late husband was a naval captain who died at Batavia from wounds received in an engagement with an English vessel. The Comte de Kergarouet, it transpires, is a former comrade of Baron de Rouville. Meanwhile, Adélaïde presents Hippolyte with a repaired and bejewelled purse: she has done this for him, and he asks for her hand in marriage.

The Purse is seen as a rather minor tale in La Comédie Humaine: I suspect that, had it been longer, The Purse would be regarded as one of the masterpieces of this cycle. Balzac’s voice is clear and delicate, and his portrayal of these women and their friendship with Hippolyte Schinner is well drawn. Along with the previously reviewed The Unknown Masterpiece, it is clear Balzac has a great love for, and a solid understanding of, the art world. In this work, he sheds light on the life of the artist in an interesting and unique manner. It is a delight of a tale.


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La Maison du chat-qui-pelote (At the Sign of the Cat and Racket) (1829)
Honoré de Balzac
J.M. Dent & Co, 63pp
Translated by Clara Bell

The first novel in the Scènes de la vie Privée (Scenes of Private Life) of Honoré de Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine was first entitled Gloire et Malheur (Glory and Misfortune) when it was published in 1829. Over the next thirteen years the story underwent a number of corrections and revisions, before finally appearing in 1842 under the title above.

The initial stories that constitute the Scènes de la vie Privée were the first conceived wholly for the cycle that would come to be known as La Comédie Humaine following the publication of two previous novels. The Scènes de la vie Privée as their name suggests, details the private lives of French society – in this case the marriage of the painter Théodore de Sommervieux to Augustine Guillaume, the daughter of a noted cloth merchant whose business, on the Rue Saint-Denis in Paris, is known by sign of the Cat and Racket. Sommervieux makes a famous reproduction of the Cat and Racket, which is exhibited alongside portrait of Augustine. The courtship and eventual marriage had not been planned – her family intended for Augustine to marry the clerk of the shop, Joseph Lebas. Lebas, then, marries Augustine’s sister, Virginie.

Sommervieux’s fortunes rises, and the now famous portrait of Augustine ends up in the hands of the Duchesse de Carigliano, with whom Sommervieux is enamoured, and who in turn is enamoured with the painting. As her marriage begins to crumble, Augustine visits the Duchesse and sees the painting and is given it back, in the hope that when her husband sees it back in her possession, he will realise the power of his wife. When Sommervieux returns home, his wife, dressed again as she was for the portrait – and therefore again as she was when Sommervieux fell in love with her – Sommervieux does not react well. He realises his wife cannot see the painting for its worth, that she does not understand art, and can never truly understand him. Augustine marriage ends eight years later, with her death.

This brief outline of La Maison du chat-qui-pelote barely does the story justice. There is quiet power in Balzac’s prose. The unravelling of this marriage, and its portraiture under Balzac’s pen, takes on epic qualities. It becomes at once a meditation on the power and nature of art, and of marriage to men of genius. These themes, big themes in then contemporary French high society, would have resonated deeply. The characters of Sommervieux and Augustine are well drawn, and we feel sympathy for Augustine as we see fail to save her marriage, and her life. It is rare for such short works to contain such power, but in La Maison du chat-qui-pelote, Balzac certainly achieves it.

Note: I read this story on a Sony E-reader, the PRS-300, an entry level e-reader, and I have to say I am mightily impressed with this piece of kit. I had previously read the Balzac novels reviewed on this blog on the computer screen, and my slowness in moving through Balzac’s oeuvre was eyestrain. The e-reader does away with that problem. I read on it as if I were reading the pages of a book.

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Le Chef-d’oeuvre Inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece) (1831)
Honoré de Balzac
Thompson Publishing Company, 31pp
Translation by Ellen Marriage

And so I return to the Études Philosophiques from Honoré de Balzac monumental La Comédie Humaine. It has been almost a year since I last read any of his work – so my archive tells me – though it feels like only a few months have passed, such I guess is the power Balzac’s work has on my subconscious. I can picture details of La Recherche de l’Absolu and La Peau de Chagrin even now.

Le Chef-d’oeuvre Inconnu is a short story, published first in the newspaper L’Artiste with the title Maître Frenhofer in August 1831. It appeared again later in the same year under the title Catherine Lescault, conte fantastique. It was published in Balzac’s Études Philosophiques in 1837 and was integrated into the La Comédie Humaine in 1846.

Le Chef-d’oeuvre Inconnu is one of Balzac’s more well-known stories – it has inspired both filmmakers, particularly Jacques Rivette, whose film La Belle Noiseuse (1991) is loosely based upon the story, and Pablo Picasso, who moved into the address this story takes place at, and in which he was inspired to paint Guernica.

It is an unusual story in that its protagonist is a real-life figure, the famous French painter Nicholas Poussin, a man whose work often stood in opposition to the popular cultural trends of the day: his work engaged with both the Renaissance and the classical world, and his motifs are often death and tragedy. Balzac’s choice of Poussin is entirely deliberate.

“”Ah !” said the old man, “it is this ! You have halted between two manners. You have hesitated between drawing and color, between the dogged attention to detail, the stiff precision of the German masters and the dazzling glow, the joyous exuberance of Italian painters. You have set yourself to imitate Hans Holbein and Titian, Albrecht Diirer and Paul Veronese in a single picture. A magnificent ambition truly, but what has come of it? Your work has neither the severe charm of a dry execution nor the magical illusion of Italian chiaroscuro.””

The old man is the revered painter Frenhofer, whom is critiquing a work by Frans Porbus (a lightly veiled Frans Pourbus the Younger or a mis-typing of his name, I am uncertain), whose studio he has entered with the young Poussin. Frenhofer tells Porbus that his painting of Mary of Egypt is incomplete, and with just a few more strokes of the brush, Frenhofer seems to make Mary come to life. Frenhofer tells them that though he has mastered the technique of creating a living illusion in painting, he has yet to find a suitable model for his masterwork, La Belle Noiseuse (or The Beautiful Troublemaker). We learn Frenhofer has been reworking and refining his painting for ten years, and that every time he thinks he is done, he sees he is not. A model, a perfect woman, is all he needs.

Where this story travels next is at once surprising and shocking: Balzac weaves his theme of death and tragedy effortlessly (see, I said Poussin was a deliberate choice). Balzac’s language is modern (even in Ellen Marriage’s translation), and his story could have been written yesterday: its themes resonant even now. Much of Balzac’s epic cycle is sparsely commented upon online, with some works having escaped attention entirely, but this story is well known and there are many fine essays out there discussing its themes and deeper meanings. For me, this is one of the finest short stories, and seems, in its structure and pay off, to anticipate much more modern works. It comes highly recommended.

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La Recherche de l’Absolu (The Quest of the Absolute) (1834)
Honoré de Balzac
Thompson Publishing Company, 210pp
Translation by Ellen Marriage

“La Recherche de l’Absolu is, as has been said, a novel in itself. Taking minor points only, it is a masterpiece.” So said George Saintsbury in his introduction to the Complete La Comédie Humaine. After reading this short but powerful novel it is not hard to agree – contained in this story is the essence of Balzac, the purest of his writing, some of his most powerful. I had heard La Recherche de l’Absolu called his finest novel and it indeed maybe which makes it all the more surprising that there is no definitive edition out there – Penguin, Wordsworth Classics, none of them has seen fit to release this work. The copy I have read is from the out of copyright Ellen Marriage translation from 1901.

La Recherche de l’Absolu forms part of the Études Philosophiques, Balzac’s subversion of the roman noirs, a popular literary movement in France in the first quarter of the nineteenth century (as the English Gothic works were being translated and released there, it seemed imitation was the sincerest form of flattery). Balzac is an intuitive writer and it would be beneath him to simply create his own roman noir. Instead he uses the form to explore the fragility of human emotion and the lengths to which a ‘genius’ must be allowed to go to achieve their aim.

La Recherche de l’Absolu’s plot is simple. Balthazar Claes is a chemist, married to a beautiful woman, Josephine, and they live in the Mansion Claes with their children. Balthazar Claes is seeking the philosophers stone and because of his genius he is supported emotionally and financially by his family but as the years pass and no Absolute seems to have been found and their money is dwindling Josephine falls ills and dies and the mantle of supporting Balthazar passes to his daughter, Marguerite. The family’s wealth is squandered in this quest, and Mansion Claes is gutted of its treasures.

“A woman’s power is limited by nature; how can she engage in a struggle with an Idea, with the infinite delights of thought and charms that are always renewed? What could she attempt in the face of the coquetries of ideas which take new forms and grow fairer amid difficulties, which beckon to the seeker, and lure him on so far from the world that he grows forgetful of all things else, and human love and human ties are as nothing to him?”

The obsessions becomes overwhelming, and it drives a wedge between the Claes family and the rest of the world. When Josephine dies her death is barely mourned:

“On the evening of the day when Mme. Claes died her friends discussed her over their whist, dropped flowers on her tomb in a pause while the cards were dealing, and paid their tribute to her noble character while sorting hearts and spades.”

Nobody but those invested in the quest can understand it, but a question must be asked: How much money and time can be dedicated to a cause until time should be called on it?

Balzac’s novels have sometimes been attacked for their unnecessary descriptions and longuers designed to increase the word-count, and therefore his payment for he was often paid by the word, and La Recherche de l’Absolu does have a little of that, but in this case almost every word is necessary and it contains some of Balzac’s finest and most taut writing. The emotional argument at the heart of this novel is heartbreaking and wonderfully realised. His portrait of Josephine and Marguerite reveal some of his finest writing about women and their lives.

This story can be found in Volume 1 of the Complete La Comédie Humaine at the Internet Archive, beginning on page 443. It is worth your time.

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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.

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Jésus-Christ en Flandre (Christ in Flanders) (1831)

Honoré de Balzac

Thompson Publishing Company, 19pp

Translation by Ellen Marriage

As one of the short stories that makes up La Comédie humaine, Jésus-Christ en Flandre (Christ in Flanders) is a minor work. It forms part of the Études Philosophiques (of which the previously reviewed La Peau de Chagrin is part), Balzac’s fantastical sequence of works in his epic cycle.

The story concerns itself with the appearance of Christ (or a Christ like figure) to a group of people on a ferry from the Island of Cadzand to Ostend. It has been an ordinary day, but as:

“Streaks of fiery red glared from behind the masses of crimson-flushed brown cloud that seemed about to unloose a furious gale. There was a smothered murmur of the sea, a moaning sound that seemed to come from the depths, a low warning growl”

A storm builds and threatens to wreck the ferry.

“These simple folk were indifferent to thought and its treasures, ready to sink them all in a belief; and their faith was but so much the more vigorous because they had never disputed about it nor analyzed it.”

Faith saves them, and Christ is revealed, the power of belief, of religion. Only Balzac then changes the scene, to a first person narration, of another miracle, a revelation in a church – the sight of a thousand cathedrals. Then another shift and a man wakes:

“Belief,” I said to myself, “is Life! I have just witnessed the funeral of a monarchy, now we must defend the church.”

In this short and erratic work, Balzac espouses his own beliefs, swamping his story in religious imagery. Christ in Flanders is not a great work, nor an overly interesting one. The most intriguing part of this story – a group of passengers on a sinking ship – is not played for the drama it should have, and its shift to another unconnected story is ultimately distracting. Balzac can certainly do better.

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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.

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