Posts Tagged ‘Balzac’

A visit to La Maison de Balzac in Paris

August 20, 2011 28 comments

Today I was on my own in Paris for one of those rare moments when I have no societal identity. I’m not a wife, a mother, a daughter, an employee… These stayed behind and let the woman be for once.

I decided to take a literary tour and start with La Maison de Balzac. It’s in the 16th Arrondissement, a wealthy and bourgeois district in the West of Paris. It’s a beautiful day, rather early in the morning, in a residential area in August: it’s deserted and quiet. When I exit the underground at the Métro Station La Muette, the view is typically Parisian with its Métro sign and its building in pale stones with black iron balconies. I walk a little from the Métro to the Maison de Balzac and on my way I come across a triangular building that is so typical from Paris I almost hear it shout “I’m Parisian” when I look at it.





Of course the area has much changed since Balzac’s times. The street names remind the wanderer that it was a village back then. For example, la Rue des Vignes indicates there was once a vineyard there. Perhaps the Rue Berton (picture) can help us imagine the old streets.  In Balzac’s street, you have now a stunning view on the Eiffel Tower. Balzac lived in this house from 1840 to 1847. (He died in 1850). It was the ex-Foly of a mansion located on the street. As it is build on a hill, the house where Balzac used to live is below. The mansion has been destroyed but the entrance remains.


The house is very modest and Balzac went underground there during seven years: he was bankrupt and he literally hid there from his creditors. The lease was in the name of his governess and the place had two exits to help him escape if needed. He lived there under the name of “M. de Breugnol” and Théophile Gautier was one of the rare persons to know his real address.  

This is where he reviewed La Comédie Humaine and wrote many masterpieces like La Cousine Bette, Splendeur et Misère des courtisanes or La Rabouilleuse. He wrote to Madame Hanska on February 2nd, 1845:“To work means to get up everynight at midnight, work until 8am, have a fifteen minutes breakfast, work again until 5pm, have diner, go to bed and start again on the morrow”. He worked 15 to 18 hours a day, drinking coffee to stay awake. His coffeepot is in the house.

The apartment is composed of five small rooms and today, they show to the public portraits and sculptures of Balzac, his friends and relatives. A room is dedicated to his long-term love with Madame Hanska. I suppose that many of the furniture and objects presented there were saved by Madame Hanska when Balzac died. They had been married for five months and she died in 1882. She was still living in their house and Balzac was already a master in literature.


One of the room is Balzac’s tiny office, I could only count six footsteps from one wall to the other. It’s really there that he used to work and his table and chair are under our eyes. It was really moving. It wasn’t just any table or any chair. He was attached to them and took them with him any time he moved in a new place. They’ve been with him all the time. The table is rather small and the edges bear the scars of his quill pen where he used to sharpen it impatiently or in the heat of the moment. He imagined most of La Comédie Humaine in that room. Would he have worked so intensely if he hadn’t been locked there? (1)

In another room are shown the ink pads of the characters from La Comédie Humaine.

The publishers inserted illustrations in their Balzac editions. Some dated back to the first edition by Furne but most of them dated back to the early 20th edition. This room also shows a genealogical tree of Balzacian characers. It’s so complex it’s almost impossible to understand. To think he had everything in his head is amazing.

After the visit, I spend some time in the garden. I sit on a bench in Balzac’s tiny garden to write this review on that pink notebook I carry with me all the time to write anywhere at any time. According to the letters he sent to Madame Hanska, Balzac loved flowers and he used to look at his garden through the window.





I wanted to capture the emotion of the moment. The visit was touching, I felt I was paying a tribute to this hard worker of literature. It’s not a cemetery but it was as solemn for me. His writing habits were unhealthy and perhaps led to his untimely death. We owe him that tribute. It was a lovely moment and I hoped I shared it with you.


 (1) Same question for Proust and his illness that kept him in his room. Sachs says that at the end of his life Proust wasn’t even able to go to the cinema.


July 19, 2011 20 comments

Vendetta by Honoré de Balzac. 1830.

I decided to join Caroline and Danielle in their readalong of Vendetta by Balzac. It is part of our contribution to Thyme for Tea and Bookbath’s July in Paris. Vendetta is part of La Comédie Humaine, in Scènes de la vie privée.

The story starts in 1800, i.e. when Bonaparte was First Consul, before he had the French Senate proclaimed him Emperor in 1804. The Piombos arrive in Paris after a vendetta with the Porta that decimated both families. A vendetta is a do-it-yourself justice. You don’t rely on the State justice but feel entitled to kill anyone belonging to the family you have a vendetta with. As Corsicans, the Piombos go to Napoléon and the father serves the Bonapartist administration.

In 1815, the Piombo family is still is Paris and are well-off now. Their daughter Ginevra loves to paint and takes painting lessons at Servin’s. He’s the most fashionable painting teacher among the high society and young girls from different families meet in his studio. It is just after the Restauration and Napoleon’s failed comeback to power. The aristocracy is triumphant and the Bonapartists are defeated.

As a Corsican, Ginevra is of course a fervent admirer of Napoleon. So when she realises that Servin hides Luigi, a former soldier of the Great Army in the studio, she doesn’t report it to the authorities but helps concealing his presence to the other students. As the reader expects, they fall in love and want to marry but Ginevra’s father is strongly opposed to this marriage, on the one hand because he doesn’t want to lose his daughter and on the other hand because Luigi is a survivor from the Porta family and the vendetta is still running.

It’s a short book but nonetheless full of thought-provoking events and descriptions.

Of course, the theme reminded me of Romeo and Juliet and I know Balzac admired Shakespeare a lot. We have the same ingredients here with these two young persons genuinely in love with each other and disregarding their family hate.

Balzac also insists on the particularity of Corsican temper all along this novella. According to him, it’s a lethal combination of pride, stubbornness and courage associated to a strong identity as a Corsican. The parents would rather turn their back on their daughter than accept her marriage with Luigi. Actually, Corsica has always had a very strong culture and it remains even today. One of their specialties is bombing public buildings to claim for their independence. These terrorist attacks rarely kill people but cost a lot of money. It’s become part of the folklore, of every day life. Allow me just an anecdote. There was an earthquake in the Mediterranean Sealately. The epicentre was somewhere between Marseille and Corsica. The morning after, you get to hear the habitual interviews on the radio: “how did you feel?”, “did you realise what was happening?”, blah blah blah. On the continent, the interviewee would have talked about her puzzlement. In Corsica, the interviewee naively declares that at first she thought the earthquake was a huge bombing. Her first reflex thought is bombing, isn’t that incredible? Well, back to Balzac.  

I wondered why Balzac chose Corsicans as characters. Under the romance I could feel political ideas. Does Balzac want to criticize Bonaparte through this Corsican family? He was a royalist and had little consideration for Napoleon. By describing the circle of these young girls learning how to paint, Balzac shows us a representative sample of the French society at that time. The aristocratic girls stick together and look down on the Bonapartist girls. They despise them as the defeated, the ones whose families chose the wrong side. The climate in that studio is that of the aftermath of a civil war. It’s not the first time Balzac describes this and it is also part of The Red and the Black. Is the word vendetta also relevant to call the chase of Bonaparte’s partisans after the Restauration? Luigi had to hide and walking in a uniform of the Grande Armée wasn’t safe.

Apart from the political issues, Balzac also takes the opportunity to describe the relationships between a father and a daughter. The moment when Ginevra announces she wants to get married is awful. Even before knowing the name of the groom, the father doesn’t want her to leave him. He’d rather she remained single than let her marry. It sounded so selfish and so different from the usual behaviour of fathers in Balzac’s time. Getting married was the only decent destiny for a woman in those times and being a spinster was being a sort of loser without a safe social status. Her father is over 70, could die pretty soon and leave her alone. As a parent, you don’t raise children to keep them by your side.

Furthermore, I wondered if Balzac criticised love marriages as foolish and wanted to teach the reader that loveless but reasonable marriages. I felt him conservative on the subject and condemning Ginevra for living according to her feelings rather than surrendering to her parents’ will. That their will is inappropriate, selfish or not doesn’t matter. As a daughter, she should obey. He also shows the consequences of a marriage defying the social rules and the social cost of such a choice.

As always, Balzac is a fine painter of human nature in all its pettiness. The scenes in the studio when Ginevra is observed by a jealous aristocratic girl are priceless. It could take place in a classroom between contemporary teenagers.

I wasn’t thrilled by this novella but it’s interesting to read. You can find Caroline’s review here and Danielle’s here. Very interesting too and really better written as well.

Bonus post: Vendetta by Guy de Maupassant.

After reading Balzac’s Vendetta, I noticed that Maupassant had written an eponymous short-story. I was intrigued and wanted very much to compare them. It’s a short story, shorter than Balzac’s text.

Bonifacio, in Corsica. Antoine Saverini is killed by Nicolas Ravolati. Antoine’s old mother swears on his dead body that she will avenge him and declares a vendetta. Nicolas flees to Sardinia. The old woman has no family, so she’s well aware that no one will murder Nicolas if she doesn’t. But how can she kill a strong and young man? She will imagine an incredibly cruel and efficient way to get him.

I leave you the pleasure to discover how she did it. Maupassant was really a master in short stories. There isn’t any superfluous word, everything runs smoothly until the shocking ending. Better than Balzac.

If someone wants to read it, here is the pdf file: vendetta

“What the devil was he doing in that galley?”

April 7, 2011 18 comments

La Cousine Bette, by Honoré de Balzac. (1846)

I said in my previous post about La Cousine Bette that theatre was everywhere in the novel. I’m not a specialist of Molière or of Shakespeare but when I was reading La Cousine Bette I had this persistent feeling of reading theatre. If I’m not a expert, I do enjoy watching plays and I believe this impression came from the type of characters, the form of the novel itself with its 132 chapters as short as scenes and in particular moments or dramatic tools used by Balzac.

The characters seem to be inspired by Molière or Shakespeare.  

The Baron Hulot corresponds to the character mocked in Molière’s plays, like Argan in Le Malade Imaginaire, Orgon in Tartuffe or Harpagon in L’Avare. These characters are ridiculous old men led by a passion (money) or manipulated by impostors (Tartuffe, Diafoirus). They are wealthy and other characters try to put their hand on their money. 

Valérie Marneffe is the deceitful and interested character of Molière’s plays. She’s married to an ill man much older than her. Her marriage looks like the one between Argan and Béline in Le Malade Imaginaire. In this play, the young Béline patiently waits for the death of her old and sick husband to inherit his fortune. In several Molière’s plays, an old man is married or plans to marry a pretty woman much too young and too beautiful for him. (Like Harpagon with Marianne in L’Avare)  

Hortense is the typical character of the virtuous and loving daughter who marries a young man for love, like Angélique in Le Malade Imaginaire or Elise in L’Avare.  

Crevel reminded me of Monsieur Jourdain in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. The main character of this play is a rich bourgeois who wants to be a gentleman and takes classes to acquire the skills of a gentleman (clothes, speech, dancing…) Crevel is like him as Valérie teaches him how to speak, how to behave, what to wear. He is thankful for all the good advice she gives him and never realises that he is ridiculous. Exactly like Monsieur Jourdain in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.  

M. Marneffe, who tries to confuse him with a complicated speech, is cut off by the Prince of Wissembourg with a

– Trêve de discours à la Sganarelle, “No more of Sganarelle speeches,”

Sganarelle is the valet in Les Fourberies de Scapin. He’s the character that invents a fake kidnapping on a Turkish galley to get some cash from the old Géronte. Hence the famous phrase “Mais que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère?” (“What the devil was he doing in that galley?”)  

I don’t think Lisbeth’s character exists in Molière. Hatred isn’t a feeling he wrote about. Envy, lust, greed, fake devotion to religion, yes. Hatred and evil, no, except in Dom Juan perhaps. I thought she may come from Shakespeare and indeed Balzac compares her to Iago:

Et Mme Marneffe avait eu peur en trouvant tout à la fois un Iago et un Richard III dans cette fille, en apparence si faible, si humble et si peu redoutable. And Madame Marneffe had been terrified to find this old maid a combination of Iago and Richard III., so feeble as she seemed, so humble, and so little to be feared.

I can’t tell, I haven’t read or watched Othello. There will be another reference to Othello later:

– Je ne puis pas vous le dire ici, devant tous ces Iagos… , dit le baron brésilien. “I cannot tell you before all these Iagos,” said the Brazilian.

Like in Molière, the male characters are weak or desperately in love when the female characters are angelic or manipulating.

Balzac uses theatre references to make comparisons.


Il jeta sur Mme Hulot un regard comme Tartuffe en jette à Elmire. He gave such a look at Madame Hulot as Tartuffe casts at Elmire
“La femme est le potage de l’homme”, a dit plaisamment Molière par la bouche du judicieux Gros-René. “Woman is soup for man,” as Moliere says by the mouth of the judicious Gros-Rene.

 … and Shakespeare  

– Savez-vous l’anglais ?- Oui. Avez-vous vu jouer Macbeth, en anglais ?- Oui.- Eh bien, mon fils, tu seras roi ! c’est-à-dire tu hériteras ! dit cette affreuse sorcière, devinée par Shakespeare et qui paraissait connaître Shakespeare. “Do you know English?”“Yes.”“Well, my son, thou shalt be King. That is to say, you shall come into your inheritance,” said the dreadful old witch, foreseen by Shakespeare, and who seemed to know her Shakespeare.
Nous devons quatre termes, quinze cents francs ! notre mobilier les vaut-il ? That is the question ! a dit Shakespeare. “We owe four quarters’ rent, fifteen hundred francs. Is the furniture worth so much? /That is the question/, as Shakespeare says.”
C’était enfin la Tempête de Shakespeare renversée, Caliban maître d’Ariel et de Prospero. In fact, it was the converse of Shakespeare’s Tempest — Caliban ruling Ariel and Prospero.

Some scenes sound like scenes in Molière or Shakespeare plays.

Le Malade Imaginaire and the doctors.

Other scenes reminded me of Molière, especially the ones involving physicians. I couldn’t help thinking of famous scenes in Le Malade Imaginaire with Doctor Purgon and Doctor Diafoirus.  

Le docteur Bianchon, le docteur Larabit, le professeur Angard, réunis en consultation, venaient de décider l’emploi des moyens héroïques pour détourner le sang qui se portait à la tête. Doctor Bianchon, Doctor Larabit, and Professor Angard had met in consultation, and were prepared to apply heroic remedies to hinder the rush of blood to the head.

The doctors try to cure their patients but seem helpless when the disease is a bit exotic.

Handling three lovers.

The scene (chapter 46) in which Valérie is in Bette’s room and needs to conceal to her three lovers the existence of the others is particularly molieresque I couldn’t help thinking of Le Malade Imaginaire, when Argan hides to listen to Béline or Tartuffe when Elmire hides Orgon to make him understand that Tartuffe is an impostor. It is also very “théâtre de boulevard”, with lovers hiding in closet and wives trying to get husbands out of the room. Hiding in closets or behind curtains and faking an illness are so linked to theatre in my mind that I couldn’t help imagining the room as a theatre setting. 

Behaving like actors on a stage.

The moment in Chapter 90 when Valérie convinces Crevel not to give Adeline 200 000 francs reminds me of Molière’s style. She uses hypocrite love words such as “mon minet”, pouts, makes faces, speaks silly like an actress on a stage. And indeed, she is playing a role:

Et elle frôla le visage de Crevel avec ses cheveux en lui tortillant le nez.- Peut-on avoir un nez comme ça, reprit-elle, et garder un secret pour sa Vava – lélé – ririe !…Vava, le nez allait à droite ; lélé, il était à gauche ; ririe, elle le remit en place.- Eh bien, je viens de voir… Crevel s’interrompit, regarda Mme Marneffe.- Valérie, mon bijou, tu me promets sur ton honneur… , tu sais, le nôtre ? de ne pas répéter un mot de ce que je vais te dire… And she swept her hair over Crevel’s face, while she jestingly pulled his nose.“Can a man with a nose like that,” she went on, “have any secrets from his /Vava–lele–ririe/?”And at the /Vava/ she tweaked his nose to the right; at /lele/ it went to the left; at /ririe/ she nipped it straight again.“Well, I have just seen–” Crevel stopped and looked at Madame Marneffe.“Valerie, my treasure, promise me on your honor–ours, you know?–not to repeat a single word of what I tell you.”

Can’t you imagine actors on a stage rather than real persons in a room? It made me think of Toinette toying with Argan in Le Malade Imaginaire. This particular scene also reminded me how Mrs Ferrars convinces her husband he needs not give to his stepmother and stepsisters all the money his father asked him to give on his death bed. (Sense and Sensibility) 

Romeo and Juliet: the poison.

When I read about the death given through a disease but with a possible antidote, I thought about Romeo and Juliet.  

L’un de mes nègres porte avec lui le plus sûr des poisons animaux, une terrible maladie qui vaut mieux qu’un poison végétal et qui ne se guérit qu’au Brésil : je la fais prendre à Cydalise, qui me la donnera ; puis, quand la mort sera dans les veines de Crevel et de sa femme, je serai par delà les Açores avec votre cousine, que je ferai guérir et que je prendrai pour femme. Nous autres sauvages, nous avons nos procédés !… One of my negroes has the most deadly of animal poisons, and incurable anywhere but in Brazil. I will administer it to Cydalise, who will give it to me; then by the time when death is a certainty to Crevel and his wife, I shall be beyond the Azores with your cousin, who will be cured, and I will marry her. We have our own little tricks, we savages!

This trick sounded like tools to make the action progress in plays. 

Balzac intervenes as a writer and gives instructions like indications in theatre plays.   

La scène par laquelle commence cette sérieuse et terrible Etude de mœurs parisiennes allait donc se reproduire, avec cette singulière différence que les misères prophétisées par le capitaine de la milice bourgeoise y changeaient les rôles. So the scene with which this serious and terrible drama of Paris manners opened was about to be repeated, with this singular difference –that the calamities prophesied then by the captain of the municipal Militia had reversed the parts.

See the vocabulary: “scene”, “drama”, “open”, “parts”, like for theatre. In the following quote I saw the instructions written by a playwright to help the director:  

En ce moment, le maréchal Hulot entra dans l’antichambre et sa voix se fit entendre. La famille comprit l’importance du secret, et la scène changea subitement d’aspect. Les deux enfants se relevèrent, et chacun essaya de cacher son émotion. Just then Marshal Hulot’s voice was heard in the anteroom. The family all felt the importance of secrecy, and the scene suddenly changed. The young people rose, and every one tried to hide all traces of emotion.

 Comparisons with theatre are used to describe a scene, a feeling, an attitude.

Crevel aurait voulu descendre dans la cave par une trappe, comme cela se fait au théâtre. Crevel only longed to vanish into the cellar, through a trap, as is done on the stage.

 Sometimes, replies or dramatic tools sound like theatre:

– Monsieur, nous allons fermer l’appartement, la farce est jouée, et vous remettrez la clef à M. le maire. “Now we will lock up; the farce is played out, and you can send your key to Monsieur the Mayor.”


Cachez-vous là, vous entendrez tout. Cette scène se joue aussi souvent dans la vie qu’au théâtre. Hide there, and you will hear everything. It is a scene that is played quite as often in real life as on the stage.

Again, words linked to comedy: “farce”, “stage”.  

And I have many examples, it would be boring to show them all. I can’t imagine people talking like that in real life. That’s partly why I didn’t love La Cousine Bette. I thought the dialogues theatrical, exaggerated like phrases of a play, when the actors speak loudly and articulate so that the spectators in the last row can still follow the plot.  It sounded fake, overplayed and it prevented me from feeling anything for the characters. I should have pitied Hortense, but I couldn’t. I looked at them like a spectator from a balcony in a theatre or like a child who observes ants in a box.

PS : I know the style of this post is even more clumsy than my usual English but I lack the vocabulary to describe precisely what I mean.

La Cousine Bette (1846) by Honoré de Balzac

April 6, 2011 20 comments

La Cousine Bette by Balzac. Translated into English by James Warin (Cousin Betty)

La Cousine Bette is included in La Comédie Humaine, in the section Scènes de la vie parisienne. It was first published as a roman-feuilleton in a newspaper, Le Constitutionnel. I read the kindle version from Gutenberg Project. The book is divided in 132 chapters, each chapter having a specific title. It appears that not all editions have this chapter subdivision and it may be a good thing for the modern reader as it breaks the flow.

La Cousine Bette is the story of an implacable vengeance fomented by Lisbeth Fischer, the poor relative of the extended Hulot family. Lisbeth and Adeline Fischer are cousins, and both women come from a remote village of Lorraine, in the Vosges. Lisbeth is ugly while Adeline is beyond lovely. Here’s Balzac’s idea of an ugly woman:

Paysanne des Vosges, dans toute l’extension du mot, maigre, brune, les cheveux d’un noir luisant, les sourcils épais et réunis par un bouquet, les bras longs et forts, les pieds épais, quelques verrues dans sa face longue et simiesque, tel est le portrait concis de cette vierge. A native of the Vosges, a peasant in the fullest sense of the word, lean, brown, with shining black hair and thick eyebrows joining in a tuft, with long, strong arms, thick feet, and some moles on her narrow simian face–such is a brief description of the elderly virgin.

The peasant family wants to make the best money out of their two assets:

La famille, qui vivait en commun, avait immolé la fille vulgaire à la jolie fille, le fruit âpre à la fleur éclatante. Lisbeth travaillait à la terre, quand sa cousine était dorlotée. The family, living all under one roof, had sacrificed the common- looking girl to the beauty, the bitter fruit to the splendid flower. Lisbeth worked in the fields, while her cousin was indulged

Lisbeth has more value in the fields or later as a worker than on the marriage market and Adeline’s value lays in her beauty as she can expect a rich marriage, which is what happens when she meets Hulot. The injustice of the situation plants in Lisbeth an entrenched hatred towards her spoiled and beautiful cousin. In her eyes, Adeline has everything: beauty, money and family.

At the beginning of the book, Adeline is married to Le Baron Hulot and has two children, Hortense and Victorin. Her son is married to Célestine, M. Crevel’s daughter. Lisbeth, nicknamed Bette, lives in Paris in a poor neighbourhood and weekly visits her cousin Adeline. Lisbeth’s hatred is under good check until she reveals to her cousin Hortense that she has a secret lover. Indeed, she has a secret relationship with a Polish immigrant named Wenceslas, but it isn’t a love affair. He’s a handsome, poor and unknown artist. She supports him financially, encourages him in his work and loves him. He’s younger than her but her love is half-motherly, half-tender. When the beautiful Hortense steals Wencelas from her and marries him, Bette’s hatred is set on fire. She decides to avenge herself on Adeline and her family.

Meanwhile, we learn more about the Baron Hulot, who became rich during the Empire and now works for the War Office. He was handsome and took advantage of it. He is a pathological womanizer and as coquettish as a courtesan. Crevel, Victorin’s father-in-law and Hulot have known each other for a long time as they have been companions in debauchery. When Hulot steals the courtesan Josepha from him, Crevel wants to avenge himself by seducing Adeline. The virtuous Adeline resists and Crevel needs to find a new way out to his fierce resentment.

The tool will be Valérie Marneffe.

She’s a bourgeois, living poorly in the same filthy building as Lisbeth. She’s beautiful and knows how to make the better of it. Her husband gives her free rein and she’s absolutely decided to bet on her charms to enrich but without being a courtesan.

Lisbeth and Valérie befriend and share their secret. Lisbeth wants the financial and social death of Hulot to reach Adeline. Valérie wants to find a rich lover. They realize they can achieve their respective goal if Hulot fall madly in love with Valérie and if she withdraw from him as much money as possible. In the meantime, Valérie also resolves to seduce Crevel, whose rivalry with Hulot is known and who has even more money. Lisbeth’s vengeance can’t be completed until Valérie has also Wenceslas at her feet and thus ruins Hortense’s happiness.

Lisbeth has a one track mind and is an accomplished actress. She has an incredible talent to disguise her feelings and deceive her relatives, who rely blindly on her to protect their interests while she’s the one who sets in motion the machine that will ruin and dishonour them. She looks like a dull and devoted spinster when she’s consumed by hatred.

Hulot is a perfect imbecile, totally led by passion. He’s not very strong-willed and is solely driven by his libido. He needs to make himself attractive to women. I loved the description of the ageing Hulot with dyed hair wearing a corset to look younger. He looks so ridiculous.

Crevel is a more interesting character, as he’s a womanizer but he keeps some control over himself and doesn’t make reckless decisions about money. He’s more a libertine than passionate. He’s also interested in climbing the social ladder and leans on Valérie’s knowledge of worldly manners to improve. He’s a former shopkeeper and he doesn’t speak very well.

Wenceslas is weak too, easily turned away from art to flirt in Valérie’s salon. He could have been a great artist but lacked the perseverance.

Victorin is the most interesting man. Lacking of personality at the beginning, he improves as the novel progresses. He’s actually utterly honest and good and behaves gentlemanly. He’s the most reliable man in the family. His marriage with Célestine happens to be a good match.

The women are charming and deceitful (Valérie), ugly and evil (Lisbeth), good but not without pride (Hortense) or generous to imbecility (Adeline). All correspond to a stereotype of women. I read on Wikipedia that Lisbeth and Valérie have a lesbian relationship, I hadn’t noticed it but thinking about it, it’s quite right. (There were also lesbians in La Fille aux Yeux d’Or). All in all, the courtesan Josepha looks less evil than Valérie. At least she doesn’t hide that she lives on sex when Valérie plays the virtuous bourgeoise. (I wonder if Valérie inspired Nana. I don’t remember Nana well enough, I read it such a long time ago.)

Among all the events, descriptions and thoughts left by Balzac in this dense novel, I want point out specific elements that stayed with me.  

There is a great emphasis on the Lorraine origins of Lisbeth, especially at the beginning of the book. Coming from there, I can’t imagine why such dark features could be representative of a Lorraine girl, especially before the immigration waves from Southern Europe. Lisbeth Fischer is a German name, and her nickname Bette is German too. Though Balzac doesn’t mention it, she must have had a strong German accent, as French must have been a learnt language for a Lorraine peasant of that time. Dialects were eradicated in France in the 20thC through zealous school teachers who forbid pupils to speak in dialects at school. But at that time, in that region, she probably spoke a German dialect. Balzac enforces the origin from this country by using “la Bette” when referring to her. This locution has two impacts: it’s a regionalism, people in Lorraine use “la/le” (the) before first names, like authorized in German but grammatically wrong in French. It’s less frequent now but it still exists. It’s also a way to show the animal nature of Lisbeth, because “la bette” sounds like “la bête” which means “the beast”. In addition, as Lorraine was ruled by a Polish prince, Stanislas Leszczyński in the 18thC, it is quite ironic to put Lisbeth’s heart in the power of a Polish immigrant. I don’t know if Balzac did it on purpose or if the Polish character was fashionable at the time, as it also appears in La Fausse Maîtresse.

I was hugely interested in the picture of Paris during the Restauration. I was amused to read that the neighbourhood in which Lisbeth and Valérie first live and meet, near Le Louvre was a place of ill repute. Now, it’s one of the neatest places of the capital. I also enjoyed the descriptions of pre-Haussmanian Paris. Political references were fascinating too such as the place of heroes of the Napoleonic wars in the society, the war to conquer Algeria, the construction of a new civilian society based on the remains of the Ancien Régime and the Révolution. There would also be a lot to say about religion and how Catholic faith was at work to gain the masses after the Revolution.

I wondered if Hulot could be medically considered as suffering from hyper-sexuality. It’s the medical term for abnormal sexual needs. He is quite an addict and would need a therapy. I can’t compare him to Don Juan, he’s not excited by the thrill of the chase. He’s more what we call in colloquial French a “chaud lapin” (a “randy devil” according to the dictionary).

I was also really fascinated by the means people use to get cash money. I was puzzled by the financial instruments and the pledge of pensions and future income. Balzac speaks naturally of all this, I can only think it was very common. At a moment, Crevel says:

Pour avoir deux cent mille francs d’argent vivant, il faut vendre environ sept mille francs de rente trois pour cent.

To have two hundred thousand francs in hard cash it would be needful to sell about seven hundred thousand francs’ worth of stock at three per cent.

I was intrigued by this. I wondered how many later payments of 7000 francs were needed to get 200 000 francs in hard cash with a 3% interest rate. An Excel spreadsheet later – you can’t shut up the accountant for a long time, *sigh*– I could tell that 66 periods were needed. Obviously, these periods weren’t years and could only be months. That leaves us with a monthly 3% interest rate, roughly equivalent to 36% a year. Ruinous, especially with an inflation rate inferior to 5%.

I really enjoyed Balzac’s wits. He’s an example of sharp French eloquence. For pure pleasure, here are excerpts:

Et, en effet, à quarante-sept ans passés, la baronne pouvait être préférée à sa fille par les amateurs de couchers de soleil And, in point of fact, at seven-and-forty the Baroness might have been preferred to her daughter by amateurs of sunset beauty.
Elle saisit son adorateur dans une de ces stupéfactions où les oreilles tintent si bien, qu’on n’entend rien que le glas du désastre. [She] came upon her adorer, standing lost in amazement–in the stupid amazement when a man’s ears tingle so loudly that he hears nothing but that fatal knell.
Mme Crevel, femme assez laide, très vulgaire et sotte, morte à temps, n’avait pas donné d’autres plaisirs à son mari que ceux de la paternité. Madame Crevel, ugly, vulgar, and silly, had given her husband no pleasures but those of paternity; she died young.

The first quote sounds better in French, I’m afraid as it’s more elliptic and I don’t know why the “glas du désastre” wasn’t translated by “the knell of disaster”, I suppose that “fatal knell” sounds more English.  

There has been two moments for me with this novel. The first two-thirds of the book are dedicated to the how: how Bette takes revenge on her relatives and how Le Baron Hulot carries away the whole family in his fall. I thought this part particularly theatrical and melodramatic. I could see a stage, with doors slamming from people entering and going out. I could imagine the settings changing between each chapter according to the house in which the scene took place. The vocabulary and Balzac’s constant references to Molière didn’t help me disregard this impression, but this will be developed in another post. I expected something like Eugénie Grandet or La Femme de 30 ans and not theatre in prose. I almost stopped reading it. I persevered because it was Balzac and because this book came highly recommended. I enjoyed the last third of the book better. The impression of theatre dispelled. I didn’t read the last chapters but heard them in an audio version. (I was in one of those cooking week-ends and wanted to know the ending, so I opted for the audio version. Cousin Bette’s revenge must have broken through into my life as it has been the worst cake of my history as a cook.)

Though I can tell it’s a great novel, I didn’t love it. It sure deserves to be read. Theatre filtering through the novel really bothered me. That may have been avoided with a paper edition without the short chapters sounding like scenes in a play. In addition, I found the characters too simple, lacking of subtlety. Bette is all vengeance. Adeline is all saintly acceptance, virtue and resignation. The old opposition between a devilish ugly brunette vs angelic beautiful blonde, vice against virtue annoyed me as life isn’t so simple. I prefer books where the nasty have redeeming qualities and the good have flaws because life isn’t black and white, or brunette and blonde, I should say. I loved the ending though, so typically French that it made me smile.

For another review, read Lisa’s from ANZ LitLovers.

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.

The dangerous non-liaisons

September 18, 2010 7 comments

The Pretended Mistress, by Honoré de Balzac. A story from La Comédie Humaine, published in 1841.

In 1835, Clémentine de Rouvre marries Comte Adam Mitgislas Laginski, a Polish exile living in Paris. Adam was a soldier and took part in the uprising led by Polish Cadets against Russia in 1830, during which he met Thadée Paz. They became close friends, and their attachment is intensified by their being brothers in arms.

Clémentine and Adam’s marriage is a happy one. Thaddée, who comes from a noble but poor branch of a Polish family, decides to stay with Adam and work for him as his steward. He is afraid that Adam’s carelessness and Clémentine’s ignorance of business matters will lead to their ruin. So he takes everything under his control and they become prosperous. For example, he managed to negotiate the price of their beautiful home to their advantage.

Why such a devotion? Apart from the brotherly affection he feels for Adam, Thaddée has been madly in love Clémentine from the very first moment he met her. Clémentine, blind to his attachment, does not understand why her husband’s fine best friend stays in the shadows and does not participate to their Parisian life. She insists on his going out with them and sharing their diners.

During one of those evenings, Thaddée, handsomer than Adam, realizes that she may fall for him. Out of loyalty, he sacrifices his own happiness for the sake of Adam’s. He invents himself a mistress in the person of Malaga, a circus acrobat. He picked the name in his head, having seen her on a poster earlier on the street. To corroborate his story, he has her moving in an apartment he pays for and makes up every detail to keep up appearances. As soon as he has fabricated the evidences, he is caught by his lie as a fly in a cob web.

Although Blazac states that “Nothing so resembles the Divine love as hopeless human love”, I see evil in their relationships anyway. Indeed, their love triangle in based on lies, although Thaddée is the only member of the triangle who actually knows he is in such a triangle. Unlike the malignant lies of The Dangerous Liaisons, these ones are told for honourable reasons but produce the same kind of mischief. Thadée manipulates Clémentine for her own sake, and whatever the motive, manipulation cannot be justified. The two non-liaisons – the one between Thaddée and Clémentine and the one between Thaddée and Malaga – hover over them and sour the atmosphere.

We can wonder “Why such a sacrifice from Thaddée?” Balzac, sardonically answers through Adam’s voice:

Friendship, my dear angel, knows nothing of bankrupt sentiments and collapsed joys. Love, after giving more than it has, ends by giving less than it receives.”

 It is as if Thaddée were making a reasonable choice, searching the security in friendship and fleeing from the dangers love could bring.

 Apart from the original plot, the style of the book is a treat. From the first lines, Balzac unleashes his irony and addresses to the reader:

“In September 1835, one of the richest heiresses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, Mademoiselle du Rouvre, the only daughter of the Marquis du Rouvre, married Comte Adam Mitgislas Laginski, a young Polish exile. We ask permission to write these Polish names as they are pronounced, to spare our readers the aspect of the fortifications of consonants by which the Slave language protects its vowels,—probably not to lose them, considering how few there are.”   

I was much entertained by his witty tone. In the first pages, Balzac describes the background of Clémentine de Rouvre and explains the origins of Polish exiles living in Paris, ie they took refuge in France after the Cadet Uprising was routed by the Russian army. I was quite interested by this introduction and was curious to know more about the uprising of Poles against Russia, (See here for more details). This introduction is necessary for us to understand the roots of the comradeship between Adam and Thaddée. It is based on life-threatening experiences and relies on an absolute trust between the two men.

 But I also suspect that Balzac takes advantage of this story to expose political ideas. For example, here is the description of Clémentine’s boudoir :

Such is a lady’s boudoir in 1837,—an exhibition of the contents of many shops, which amuse the eye, as if ennui were the one thing to be dreaded by the social world of the liveliest and most stirring capital in Europe. Why is there nothing of an inner life? nothing which leads to revery, nothing reposeful? Why indeed? Because no one in our day is sure of the future; we are living our lives like prodigal annuitants.”

The last sentence relates to the political uncertainties that France had known for 50 years when Balzac writes this and echoes Musset in Confession of a Child of the Century, which I reviewed here.

The Pretended Mistress was also translated under the title The Imaginary Mistress, but I like “pretended” better than “imaginary” to translate the adjective “fausse” used in French. Imaginary means that Malaga does not exist. But she does, she just pretends to be Thaddée’s mistress. By the way, I think that the English translation I found is a bit flat compared to the French original text.

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