Monday, April 21, 2008

Ursule Mirouët - like ravens waiting for a horse to be buried

Sometime, perhaps next fall, I hope to do a sort of Balzac roundup, so just a few comments on Ursule Mirouët (1841).

A wealthy Parisian doctor has retired to his home town of Nemours to raise his orphaned great-niece, Ursule. The doctor’s cousins are legally entitled to most of his fortune, but they want all of it, and are worried that the doctor is like themselves, in other words, a greedy schemer who will try to cheat them out of every penny. The first crisis occurs when the relatives learn, to their horror, that the doctor, a long-time atheist, has been attending Mass.

The relatives are sometimes barely distinguishable from each other, but are nevertheless a fine creation. This may be my favorite sentence in all of Balzac (the doctor has just died):

“When (in her phrase) she had decked out the corpse, the old nurse ran to inform Monsieur Savinien; but the heirs, who were standing at the street corner surrounded by inquisitive onlookers and looking for all the world like ravens waiting for a horse to be buried before scratching the earth and digging into it with their feet and beaks, ran up with the rapidity of those birds of prey.” (Penguin, p. 187)

Chapter 6 is titled “A Brief Digression on Magnetism.” Oh no, more of Balzac’s pseudo-science. But in this book, the telepathy and far-seeing are as integral to the story as Balzac could make them, and the connections between religious spirituality and the “science” of the supernatural are a central theme of the book. To Balzac, the supernatural business is part of his realism. A modern reader may have to put a tiny bit more effort into suspending his disbelief. Once he does (once I did), the plot has a natural and satisfying logic.

Ursule Mirouët is not as outrageous as Père Goriot, or as sublime as Eugénie Grandet, to which it has many resemblances (Balzac said Ursule was Eugénie’s happy sister, and he could be referring to either the characters or their books). It’s a delight. And it’s short. All of my favorite Balzac novels are short.

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