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.