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.