He loved Balzac

January 16, 2012

In summaries of the plot of The 400 Blows, Antoine, the young boy whose sorry life is chronicled over a period of a few months, is often referred to as “misunderstood.”  Ignored and treated like a piece of wood is more like it.  The adults around him, beginning with his sexy young mother who finds him irritating, his teachers, and adult officialdom generally, have no interest in him at all, his growth, his mind, his feelings, or his future.  They just want to have him “taken care of” in some institutionally acceptable way.

In the only scene in which Antoine reflects on his life, speaking to an (unseen) psychologist at a delinquent ‘observation’ center to which he is sent after being picked up for stealing, Antoine reveals that he knows more about his situation than any adult.  He knows he is an unwanted child, that his mother has affairs, that his parents regard him as a burden, and that the world, generally, sees him as a worthless scapegrace bound for jail or the military.  The film presents his story with great economy, verve, and profound sympathy.  Today, we know it was highly autobiographical of the young Francois Truffaut’s life, who burst onto the scene as a director with this film at the age of 27 in 1959.

I am not a fan of Truffaut, finding him sentimental and too sweet, but this film is stark:  only the soundtrack mars the tone, adding a treacly and naïvely innocent contrast  to the bleak tale of the ‘real world’ grinding young boys to dust between its wheels.  As if we had to have that idea pounded into us that these are, after all, just very young boys.  And speaking of pounding, the title, a literal but misleading translation of the French, refers to the idiomatic expression, faire les quatre-cent coups, which means “to raise hell.”

The only things that rouse Antoine’s genuine enthusiasm are films, and a book of Balzac that his grandmother gave him.  (His mother regards it as rubbish, and sells it.)  Pressed to find a topic for a homework assignment, he plagiarizes Balzac’s story, In Search of the Absolute, which he had been reading with rapt attention that evening.  He even lights a candle to a miniature shrine to Balzac that he creates in his house.  The candle sets the room on fire; his teacher gives him an ‘F’.  The fact that this delinquent, under-achiever had actually read a Balzac story doesn’t interest him at all.

Eugénie Grandet

February 10, 2010

This little tale from Balzac’s scenes of provincial life is one of my favorites, having a simple plot anchored by a character of monumental greed and miserliness, Old Grandet.  He has amassed a fortune in land, farms, shares, and wooden casks of gold coins that he loves to gaze upon, but he lives like a simple workman with not a centime to his name.  His good wife and lovely daughter, Eugénie, are completely dominated by his tyrannical personality.  Eugenie has never known any other life, and hardly dreams that one is possible, let alone that she is an heiress to millions.

Into this small town darkness flashes the meteoric path of Charles, Grandet’s nephew, whose father killed himself to escape the shame of bankruptcy.  Charles visits his relations in Saumur at his father’s direction, not knowing why, and learns the awful truth from his uncle.  He is a rich, spoiled, foppish dandy, but he is truly despairing when he learns of his father’s end, and he resolves to remake his fortune in the West Indies.  But first, through a few secret interviews, he and Eugénie fall in love.  To help him on his way, Eugénie gives him her entire life savings, a bag of gold coins, resolving to wait for him forever, blissfully enslaved to the only true love she has ever known.

Charles sails away, and Grandet finds out about Eugénie’s absolutely foolish, blasphemous action with her gold.  Initially, he punishes her by locking her in her room on a diet of bread and water.  The mother’s health fails, the town gossips, and the two top families scheme to get their sons married to Eugénie.  Charles grows rich trading slaves, and becomes corrupt and miserly – Eugénie is orphaned.  Charles returns to France and feels obligated to write Eugénie a “Dear Jane” letter so he can proceed to marry into a decrepit but prestigious noble family with a clear conscience.  Eugénie marries one of the sons, but insists that she remain a virgin, and lives a life of humility, austerity, and generous charity.  Her husband never gets to enjoy his wife’s wealth; he dies young.  Charles is shocked to learn that the pretty cousin he jilted, the one who lives in poverty in the country, is far more wealthy than he – he calculated wrong!

Such is the plot – another French tale of sharp provincial dealing and financial chicanery – of which Balzac is a master.  It is the character and psychology of Old Grandet that makes it an epic of obsession and sexual repression.  Grandet seems hardly human, a mass of granite, and completely devoid of feelings.  He drives hard bargains always, and only shows delight and humor when he manages a particularly crafty financial triumph.  He has a wen, a cyst or wart, on his nose that is his principle indicator of internal passion – it becomes inflamed and pulsating when he is agitated or angry.  The symbolism is obvious.

Eugénie, his daughter, is a beautiful young woman who is practically living the life of a nun, married, in bondage, to her father and his gold.  He gives her gifts of coins on special occasions, but his gifts come with strings.  He asks now and then to view the coins with her -“Go and bring your coins, girlie. Looking at them warms me up.”  His use of the diminuitive is unsettling – Eugénie is a fully grown and lovely woman.  The coins give him heat and life: money is always something supernatural in Balzac, and here it is the life-sexual force itself.    There is nothing else for Old Grandet.  Locked in his office, gazing at his barrels of gold, Grandet is like a boy ashamed of his sexual longing, hiding himself away with his favorite girlie magazines.  At one point, he exclaims: “You ought to kiss me on the eyelids for telling you the secrets and mysteries of the life and death of money.  Really, coins live and swarm like men’ they come and go and sweat and multiply.”  Such are the facts of life according to Monsieur Grandet. Swarming, multiplying, sweating…only gold lives.  It’s the only sex education Eugénie gets.

When Eugénie gives Charles her coins, he gives her a golden casket of his mother’s in return, to hold for him in trust, promising to repay her the value of her coins.  Eugénie and her mother, who sympathizes with her, delight in looking at the box, rehearsing their memories of the handsome cousin, now far away.  Upon learning of this exchange, Old Grandet leaps upon the casket “like a tiger” and begins clawing it, almost destroying it to get some goldwork that he can sell to recoup her idiotic squandering of her treasure.  Eugénie tries to stop him, shouting that the cask is neither hers nor his, it is only held in trust against Charles’ return and repayment of the  loan of her coins.  Grandet shoves her aside, hurting her, and cries, “Why were you looking at it if it was given you in trust?  Looking is worse than touching.”

Ah, yes, the looking!  His gloating over his coins has an element of sexual looking, voyeurism.  This is more explicit when, after punishing his daughter with house arrest, he fumes and walks in his garden, but can’t resist looking at her as she mournfully brushes her hair at her windowsill.  His gaze is filled with anger, love, paternal and avaricious, and sexual?  The scene made me think of this painting by Thomas Hart Benton and the story of Susanna and the Elders – young women wronged by crude, dirty old men.  When Eugénie tries to evade his requests to see her gold in order to forestall revealing what she did with it, Old Grandet wheedles:  “Listen, Eugénie, you must give me your gold.  You won’t refuse your old daddy, will you girlie, eh?” sounding like a increasingly frustrated pedophile with a recalcitrant intended victim.

Eugénie, disappointed in love, agrees to marry only to procure a service from her notary-suitor that will rescue the honor of that cad, Charles, and with the stipulation that she remain a virgin.  Her fate reminds me of Zeus impregnating Danae with a rain of golden coins – another woman done wrong by gold.

The Wild Ass’s Skin (Peau de chagrin)

November 8, 2009

kicking up a storm

The Wild Ass’s Skin is the weirdest novel by Balzac I’ve read to-date.  It was his second major novel in his vast Human Comedy, and it features several characters who reappear later in the series, albeit not always in a consistent manner. In it, we have Balzac’s pseudo-science, fascination with magic, some romanticism such as I’ve never read in his work, the usual thrilling and cynical dissection of social structures, and sex portrayed with an abandon and explicitness from which he usually refrains.

The premise of the plot is magical:  A down on his luck, impoverished aristocrat, Raphael Valentin, looses his last coin gambling, and resolves on suicide.  To pass the time until an opportune moment arises, he visits a vast antiques shop and meets its strange proprietor.  He is shown a strange piece of leather, an ancient scrap of an ass’s skin, embossed with eastern script.  The skin has the power to grant him his every wish, but each time it does so, it shrinks, and with it, so does the lifespan of Valentin.  Another twist on the old theme of making a deal with the Devil.

The novel also has three parts, and they don’t seem to fit together all that seamlessly.  The first part describes Raphael’s coming into possession of the magical skin and his first orgy; the second is an extended flashback describing his impoverished life while he was in love with a completely heartless and drop-dead gorgeous society woman; and the third describes his agonizing descent to his inevitable end.

At one point, Valentin enlists the help of the greatest scientists in France to see if they can stretch the skin back to its original size, after he has grown fabulously wealthy by its power, and watched horrified as it diminished in size.  The great mechanical engineer gives a discourse on Pascal, motion, and hydrostatic pressure, and then watches stupefied as the skin resists the force of his engines and causes them to explode under the strain.

“Between each point in space occupied in succession by that ball,” continued the man of science, “there is an abyss confronting human reason, an abyss into which Pascal fell.

A chemist is nonplussed, and can find nothing to make the slightest change in the skin.  At a forge, in a scene that seems a combination of Joseph Wright and John Martin, the men try to incinerate the hide, but it emerges from the flames cool and untouched.  The scientists have a laugh – the mysteries of the universe never end!  Raphael is not amused.  He visits some doctors to see if they can determine why his life force is ebbing away, but they just argue amongst themselves.

“What is the good of science?” Raphael moaned. “Here is my recovery halting between a string of beads and a rosary of leeches, between Dupuytren’s bistoury and Prince Hohenlohe’s prayer…Shall I live? They have no idea. Planchette [the engineer] was more straightforward with me, at any rate, when he said, ‘I do not know.‘”

When Raphael first takes possession of the skin, he wishes to be at a stupendous banquet and orgy – and then he sees the skin shudder and shrink a bit.  Next thing we know, he is whisked to a phenomenal debauch by two friends he stumbles upon in the street.  The tale is one of Balzac’s philosophical studies, and it dissects the psychology and practice of excess and orgies,  depicting them with great realism and in detail.

His chandeliers had been filled with wax-lights; the rarest flowers from his conservatory were carefully arranged about the room; the table sparkled with silver, gold, crystal, and porcelain; a royal banquet was spread–the odors of the tempting dishes tickled the nervous fibres of the palate. There sat his friends; he saw them among beautiful women in full evening dress, with bare necks and shoulders, with flowers in their hair; fair women of every type, with sparkling eyes, attractively and fancifully arrayed. One had adopted an Irish jacket, which displayed the alluring outlines of her form; one wore the “basquina” of Andalusia, with its wanton grace; here was a half-clad Dian the huntress, there the costume of Mlle. de laValliere, amorous and coy; and all of them alike were given up to the intoxication of the moment.

His only salvation from an early death is to arrange his life with mechanical regularity so that he need never give rise to an utterance of “I wish that…” and so never invoke the power of the skin.  He becomes a recluse.  His faithful servant, fearful that he is wasting away, and minding the doctor’s orders to “keep him interested…” arranges a special treat for him which he at first takes for one of his opiated dreams:

As Raphael’s death-pale face showed itself in the doorway, a sudden outcry broke out, as vehement as the blaze of this improvised banquet. The voices, perfumes, and lights, the exquisite beauty of the women, produced their effect upon his senses, and awakened his desires. Delightful music, from unseen players in the next room, drowned the excited tumult in a torrent of harmony–the whole strange vision was complete.

Raphael felt a caressing pressure on is own hand, a woman’s white, youthful arms were stretched out to grasp him, and the hand was Aquilina’s. He knew now that this scene was not a fantastic illusion like the fleeting pictures of his disordered dreams; he uttered a dreadful cry, slammed the door, and dealt his heartbroken old servant a blow in the face.

Contrasted with this infernal decadence, there is the scene he encounters when he flees to the mountains, searching for a serene resting place in which to live out his days without desires:

As Raphael reached the place, the sunlight fell across it from right to left, bringing out all the colors of its plants and trees; the yellowish or gray bases of the crags, the different shades of the green leaves, the masses of flowers, pink, blue, or white, the climbing plants with their bell-like blossoms, and the shot velvet of the mosses, the purple-tinted blooms of the heather,–everything was either brought into relief or made fairer yet by the enchantment of the light or by the contrasting shadows; and this was the case most of all with the sheet of water, wherein the house, the trees, the granite peaks, and the sky were all faithfully reflected. Everything had a radiance of its own in this delightful picture, from the sparkling mica-stone to the bleached tuft of grass hidden away in the soft shadows; the spotted cow with its glossy hide, the delicate water-plants that hung down over the pool like fringes in a nook whereblue or emerald colored insects were buzzing about, the roots of trees like a sand-besprinkled shock of hair above grotesque faces in the flinty rock surface,–all these things made a harmony for the eye.

Such a romantic, pastoral scene, so unlike Balzac’s usual settings of village interiors or urban apartments.  And in the two locales, he encompasses the twin extremes of Romanticism:  the diabolic, and the idyllic.

In the end, Raphael is united with Pauline, who loved him when he was poor, and now that he is rich, has herself come into a fortune.  They live together, planning to be married, and Balzac describes their lives together as one of erotic bliss, although Raphael is doomed.  When Pauline realizes Raphael’s situation, she resolves to kill herself so that they can die together:  there is a frenzied embrace, he bites her breast violently! – is it consummated? .. and they die.

Not surprising that Balzac loved the novel Melmoth the Wanderer.

Sarrasine’s cynosure

September 13, 2009

La Zambinella performs

“He entered and took a seat in the pit, crowded between two unconscionably stout abbati; but luckily he was quite near the  stage…Suddenly a  whirlwind of applause greeted the appearance of the prima donna.  She  came forward coquettishly to the footlights and curtsied to the  audience with infinite grace.  The brilliant light, the enthusiasm of a  vast multitude, the illusion of the stage, the glamor of a costume  which was most attractive for the time, all conspired in that woman’s  favor.  Sarrasine cried aloud with pleasure.  He saw before him at that  moment the ideal beauty whose perfections he had hitherto sought here  and there in nature, taking from one model, often of humble rank, the  rounded outline of a shapely leg, from another the contour of the  breast; from another her white shoulders; stealing the neck of that  young girl, the hands of this woman, and the polished knees of yonder  child, but never able to find beneath the cold skies of Paris the rich  and satisfying creations of ancient Greece.  La Zambinella displayed in  her single person, intensely alive and delicate beyond words, all  those exquisite proportions of the female form which he had so  ardently longed to behold, and of which a sculptor is the most severe  and at the same time the most passionate judge.  She had an expressive  mouth, eyes instinct with love, flesh of dazzling whiteness.  And add  to these details, which would have filled a painter’s soul with  rapture, all the marvelous charms of the Venuses worshiped and copied  by the chisel of the Greeks.  The artist did not tire of admiring the  inimitable grace with which the arms were attached to the body, the  wonderful roundness of the throat, the graceful curves described by  the eyebrows and the nose, and the perfect oval of the face, the  purity of its clean-cut lines, and the effect of the thick, drooping  lashes which bordered the large and voluptuous eyelids.  She was more  than a woman; she was a masterpiece! In that unhoped-for creation  there was love enough to enrapture all mankind, and beauties  calculated to satisfy the most exacting critic.

“Sarrasine devoured with his eyes what seemed to him Pygmalion’s  statue descended from its pedestal.  When La Zambinella sang, he was  beside himself.


Balzac pre-Benjamin

August 14, 2009

oil painting factory in China

Add to my list of overrated thinkers, Mr. Walter Benjamin.  Much is made of his arcane and metaphysical piece, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Mass Production.”  In fact, my college senior thesis borrowed most of the title – “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Mass Reproduction.”  Clever, eh?

Well, here is the gist of that esoteric work, en avance, in a sentence, from Balzac’s Beatrix, one hundred years before:

While working for the masses, modern industry progressively destroys works of art that had been as personal for the buyer as for the creator.  Nowadays, we have products; we no longer have works.


August 12, 2009


On NPR today, I heard an interview with a Marine Colonel directing American forces in Afghanistan against the Taliban.  He remarked on the nature of the countryside in which they were fighting, describing it as some of the most difficult you could imagine in which to wage a counter-insurgency effort.  The countryside is divided up into squares that are bounded by trees and shrubs, providing cover for small bands of fighters, and making movement of his troops slow and dangerous.  The description matches exactly that of Balzac’s portrait of Brittany in his historical novel, The Chouans.

This was Balzac’s first entry into his monumental cycle of novels, and it is his only in his projected “scenes of military life.”  It tells the story of brutal guerilla warfare between the agents of the infant French Republic, and the rebellious people of Brittany who, like the great Vendee, fought the authority of the Paris government and supported the return of the king.  The novel is heavily influenced by the work of Walter Scott, and it is remarkable, I thought, for its gritty and believable portrayal of a bloody provincial civil war.

Balzac’s politics were “conservative” after a fashion, he was a monarchist, but he plays fair.  The Chouans are often shown as bloodthirsty, ignorant, bestial peasants led by noblemen with various degrees of integrity and clergy who seem to be mentally in the middle ages.  The Republicans are led by Commandant Hulot, an impressive, honorable, and laconic man who lives again, and dies, an old decorated soldier in the magnifient novel, Cousin Bette. But there is also Corentin, a cold, devious, unprincipled spy for the Republic’s police, who cares nothing for honor, and would turn his coat for the right price, or the right woman delivered to his bed.  In his introductory role in Balzac’s comedy, he is an incroyable, one of the enthusiasts of the first revolutionary days known for their outrageous and scandalous dress, and he reappears much later in A Harlot High and Low, where he meets his match in Vautrin, the arch-criminal.

The novel turns on the romantic and machiavellian actions of a central female, Marie de Verneuil, a pre-cinema Bond-girl.  Is she a whore, a noblewoman, a spy, a republican, a royalist?  All of the above?  She is destroyed by the deadly game she plays, one that will not make space for a deep and true love that is beyond, or above, politics.  Or is that just too sentimental, and does she deserve everything she gets?  You decide.

The Black Sheep (La Rabouilleuse)

June 30, 2009

Black Sheep fisherwoman

One of my favorite novels, and certainly at the top of my Balzac list, is this story of a titanic battle over a family fortune in the provincial town of Issoudun.  The French title can be translated as The Fisherwoman, and that is how Flore Brazier, the character is known in town.  More precisely, la rabouilleuse means a girl who assists a fisherman by using a stick to disturb the water in a stream so that the fish flee right into the nets.  This is how the young Flore was employed by her guardian when she enters the story.

I don’t know why the book is called The Black Sheep in English.  It leaves open the question of just who is the black sheep:  Phillipe Brideau – the brutal, callous, murderous, thieving, totally dishonorable former soldier of the Imperial Guard; or his brother, Joseph Brideau – a sincere, talented, hardworking, but impoverished artist living in a crassly materialistic milieu that considers painting a career for failures, no matter how brilliant the practitioner.  Flore, on the other hand, is the point about which much of the action revolves.

A child of stunning beauty, even in the abject rags of rural poverty in which she lives, Flore is ‘rescued’ from her fate by Old Rouget who happens upon her on a ride.  His intentions in bringing her to his house are anything but honorable, but Balzac, as always, is tactful in his Olympian manner.  He sees all, but needn’t tell all.  The old man dies, and the girl, grown to a fabulously beautiful young woman proceeds to dominate his imbecile of a son.  He is totally in thrall to her sexual  power, and she sets up a comfy menage a trois by bringing Maxence, a local reprobrate of a magnitude to equal Phillipe, as her live-in lover.  Together, they scheme to get the dolt of a son to sign over his enormous fortune, accumulated by his hard nosed miser dad, to them.  Sex is the lubricant that keeps their machinations going.

Well, the field of battle is set for the confrontation between Flore-Maxence and Phillipe.  It turns out that Phillipe’s mother is the dolt’s aunt, so she has an interest in the family stash, although her brother, the dead Rouget, always claimed, without evidence, that she was illegitimate, and he didn’t speak to her for the thirty years she lived in Paris.  Money, family, sex, city vs. country…everything!

Phillipe turns hero as he comes to Issoudoun to find a way to eliminate the influence of Flore and Maxence over his rich and stupid uncle.  The town isn’t big enough for the two villainous rascals.  One will have to go, and it will have to be in a box.  And so it happens…

The suspense is great, the absolutely devilish brilliance with which Phillipe outwits and crushes the gold digger crew, and his subsequent destruction as he pursues his true corrupt nature, now with piles of cash to back him, is amazing.  The mother is without a clue, nearly to the end, believing Phillipe to be her “good” son, and Joseph to be an ineffectual, if loyal boy, even as Phillipe robs her blind.  The action  and grasping morality of the characters is breathtaking in its brutality.

Ice thoughts…

April 23, 2009

Water into ice…

…When water moves from the solid state to vapor, without becoming liquid, we say it has sublimated or sublimed.

Who would have expected to find a heart of bronze or a brain packed in ice beneath as seductive an exterior as ever…

from The Girl with the Golden Eyes, by Balzac


Seems that arctic ice is doing pretty well this year, despite the predictions of an ice-free pole.

La Duchesse de Langeais

April 22, 2009


From Balzac’s History of the Thirteen, we have this novel about a coquette noblewoman who goes a bit too far.  She revels in teasing men and making them think she will be theirs, only to dump them and watch them squirm.  She meets her match in the smoldering General Montriveau, an idealized self-portrait of the author.

Once the General realizes that she is only playing with him, he concocts a scheme to teach her a thing or two – he has his men, initiates to the cabal of The Thirteen, abduct her and prepare to scorch her brow with a hot brand.  Talk about scarlet letters!  There is much knotting and unbinding of wrists and ankles as she is led here and there, blindfolded, to undisclosed locations before being deposited back at her party from which she was snatched.  Her footmen are all drunk – part of the plot no doubt.

The General scorns rape as undignified – she falls in love with him, truly, after being totally in his power, power which he disdains to exercise over her.  (He drops the branding idea when she instantaneously, under the influence of her helplessness, goes from ice-queen coquette to passionate adorer of him.)

Balzac is always very discreet, but the overtones of sadism, misogyny, kinky sexual passions, and brutal sexual warfare are quite strong.  My apologies to J. A. D. Ingres for defacing his masterpiece, Madame Contesse D’Hausonville, now hanging in the Frick Collection in New York, one of my favorite museums.