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Golden eyes maybe, but certainly not a golden book

January 21, 2011 41 comments

La Fille aux yeux d’or (1835) by Honoré de Balzac.

Translated as The Girl With the Golden Eyes. The translation I found online is by Ellen Marriage.

I’ve decided to read this novella after reading contradictory and strong comments at the end of Guy’s post on The Chouans. I was curious. Well sometimes curiosity is a bad master.

Paris, 1835. Henri de Marsay, 22, walks in the Jardin des Tuileries and meets a beautiful young girl with golden eyes. Henri has everything, he is handsome, rich, witty. He likes partying, and though he is still young, this dandy is already blasé. After several meeting and glamorous glances in the Jardins, Henri is sure the girl fancies him too. He follows the carriage in which the girl leaves the Jardins to try to discover who she is and where she lives. Henri sends his valet to meet the postman and learn as much as he can about her. Her name is Paquita Valdes, she is Spanish and kept from men by an army of servants. Henri suspects an old jealous lover.

Henri finally finds an incredible way to reach her, through secret contacts, drugs and tricks. However, when Paquita organizes their meetings, everything is so well put up that Henri wonders if she as innocent as she seems. He intended to play with her. She plays with him. It’s a dark story of manipulation and violence. Who manipulates who? Are there true feelings somewhere?

It’s Romanesque in the worse meaning of the word.

I really disliked this book. The sentences are long, full of adjectives. They sound pompous. I don’t like the Balzac I can read through the lines. He sounds conceited, misogynistic – this is not a surprise – and racist. Everything foreign is suspicious and full of clichés. He generalizes and lacks of subtlety. For example:

Nous prenons tant de choses des Anglais en ce moment que nous pourrions devenir hypocrites et prudes comme eux. We take so many things from the English just now that we could become as great prudes and hypocrites as themselves.

On a literary point of view, this text is a melting pot of several influences, as if the writer had not found his voice yet.

The most evident one is Romanticism. The introduction about the mores of the Parisian people is a grotesque lecture. There is a trace of Romanticism in the way he despises the society he finds corrupted by money, ambition and material pleasure. He depicts a disenchanted society dominated by pettiness and boredom. Right. Alfred de Musset will brilliantly explain the same things in La Confession d’un enfant du siècle (The Confession of the Child of the Century) in 1836. Musset is a lot better for the style and the depth of the analysis. This part was too long according to me. There were too many pages just to say:

Qui donc domine en ce pays sans mœurs, sans croyance, sans aucun sentiment ; mais d’où partent et où aboutissent tous les sentiments, toutes les croyances et toutes les mœurs ? L’or et le plaisir What, then, is the dominating impulse in this country without morals, without faith, without any sentiment, wherein however every sentiment, belief and moral has its origin and end? It is gold and pleasure.

It is interesting to see that what he describes could be applied to nowadays society too. People run after time to earn money, do not make effort to think or learn.

The Spanish theme is common in the French literature of that time. Hugo’s Hernani dates back to 1830 and was a huge scandal. It is the landmark of Romanticism in France. So, Spanish protagonists are a way to link this novella to the Romantic current. Hugo will also write a poem named Guitare in 1840 with Spanish characters. In 1847, Mérimée will write Carmen. Spanish women represent passion and violence in the French imagery of that time. The other reference to Romanticism is when Henri uses the name of Adolphe to meet Paquita. I think it refers to Adolphe by Benjamin Constant, a Romantic novel published in 1816.

I could also see the influence of theatre, especially Molière, Marivaux and Musset. Laurent, the valet, made me think of Sganarelle, a famous character in Molière. Balzac openly refers to comedy:

Il fallait jouer cette éternelle vieille comédie qui sera toujours neuve, et dont les personnages sont un vieillard, une jeune fille et un amoureux : don Hijos, Paquita, de Marsay. Si Laurent valait Figaro, la duègne paraissait incorruptible. Ainsi la pièce vivante était plus fortement nouée par le hasard qu’elle ne l’avait jamais été par aucun auteur dramatique !   He was about to play that eternal old comedy which will always be fresh, and the characters in which are an old man, a young girl and a lover: don Hijos, Paquita, de Marsay. If Laurent was the equal of Figaro, the duenna seemed incorruptible. Thus, the living play was supplied by Chance with a stronger plot than it had never been by dramatic author! 

Molière is also present through Henri de Marsay, who looks like Dom Juan. He wants Paquita. He knows he can seduce her. I also thought of Marivaux and Musset for the disguise and the playing with sentiments.

What truly made me yawn and roll my eyes are the two scenes where Henri has a rendezvous with Paquita in a mysterious place where he is led with his eyes bandaged. Balzac makes a reference to Ann Radcliff’s novel. (Oops, that hurts) The room is decorated with white, gold and red. The allusion to oriental settings is obvious; it made me think of the Turk Bath by Ingres, thought it was painted years after this book was written. Paquita is a virgin but well instructed in all the pleasures. (sic!) It is all ridiculous and dripping with mawkishness and at the same time quite pervert.  Balzac needed pages to tell what Baudelaire will later put in two verses:

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté
There, everything is order and beauty,
Luxury, calm and voluptuousness

So how can I sum up my impressions on this novella? I disliked it because it is a patchwork of several genres. There are two many themes and none is well treated. I thought the story ridiculous, even if the revelation of the name of Paquita’s lover is quite a surprise and an unexpected theme for that time. I was more than irritated by his vision of women as brainless beings. There are too many references to books (Rousseau, Radcliff, Molière, Constant…) or paintings (Boticcelli, Delacroix…). It’s heavy, it’s clumsy, it’s arrogant.

Well Balzac was not Balzac yet when he wrote this. Don’t start reading Balzac by reading The Girl With the Golden Eyes.

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