A French general has been searching for five years for his lost love, who has fled to a Spanish convent. He searches every convent in Spain, finding her in the last, most inaccessible, one, perched on a Mediterranean island. They meet. The woman tells the attending nun that the general is her brother, but then shifts – “’I lied to you, this man is my lover!’” Thus, the general knows that she still loves him.
Thus begins “The Duchesse of Langeais,” the 1834 novella that ends the NYRB Balzac collection. Now Balzac flashes back, as we expect – how did these people get here? Their sadistic and masochistic love affair is described in great detail, with the couple taking turns tormenting each other, reducing each other to subjection. Psychologically, this is the great interest of the story.
Or more precisely, in terms of the history of psychology in fiction, this is an early example of the portrayal of this particularly psychology. A century earlier, in Manon Lescaut (1731), the man is dominated by the woman, while here they take turns, crushing each other and then allowing themselves to be crushed in turn.
Balzac begins this section with an essay on the recent history of the French aristocracy – no, the history of the meaning of the French aristocracy – that is among the dullest things I have ever read by him, painfully abstract. The idea that Balzac’s fiction is useful or good because of his understanding of society or social forces or even ideas is an error. He is at his worst with ideas, and Anthony Trollope is a much sharper social scientist. He is great for taking fundamental emotions and psychology and blowing them up, making them bigger, drawing a thick black outline around them. The result can be cartoonish, like a great caricaturist, or a Cézanne portrait.
The general had known he had found the duchess by the way she played the organ:
She enriched it with graceful developments whose different rhythms spoke of a human gladness. In its brilliant trills a soprano might try to express her love, and her songs fluttered like a bird near its nest. Then at moments she leaped back into the past, now to frolic, now to weep. Her changing mode had something disordered about it, like the agitation of the happy woman at her lover’s return… Shifting from a major to a minor key, the musician was able to inform her listener of her present lot. Now she told him of her long melancholy, her lingering moral malady. (290-1)
Is this the general’s projection, or something in the performance? It really is her, though. In Balzac’s fiction, this is possible.
“The Duchesse of Langeais” is part of a trio of novellas, The History of the Thirteen, all of which feature some nonsense about a secret society (the general is a member). I have not read “Ferragus,” but the “The Girl with the Golden Eyes” is perhaps my least favorite Balzac, not the worst thing I have read by him, but the most unpleasant, a story of lust and murder told in lurid golds and crimsons that later became a touchstone of French Decadence. “Langeais” threatens to go in that direction at one point, but backs off, finally turning into something that could easily be a Three Musketeers episode:
This stairway, miraculously light and perfectly solid, cost twenty-two days of labor. A phosphorous light and the undertow of the waves would destroy all trace of it forever in a single night… Montriveau slept on the rock for two nights, wrapped in his cloak. (412)
More, more, more, more suffering, more money, more ambition. More, Balzac, more.