Wednesday, March 10, 2021

More philosophical Balzac - magic powers and opera criticism

Of the six Balzac “Philosophical Studies” I read, three are fantasy stories with supernatural elements and three are about art.  The category could cover anything, really, but Balzac meant those.

They all share Balzac’s loving verbal construction of places.  His Paris is one I can walk around in.  “The scene changed again, he realized, to the corner of rue de l’Orangerie and rue des Récollets…” (“Melmoth Reconciled”), just around the corner from my last Paris hotel, the one with all the bird decorations, the one right by where Heinrich Heine spent his sad last years paralyzed in his sickbed.  When the busted-flat protagonist of The Wild Ass’s Skin is going to jump into the Seine, he has to pick a specific bridge, and has to walk to it by a plausible route.

Don’t worry, on the way to the bridge he by whim, or to experience just a bit more life, wanders into an antique store and acquires a magical wishing skin.  Also cursed, obviously.  The antique store description goes on for pages, junk and treasures piled up in long paragraphs.

The French title of the novel is La Peau de Chagrin (1831, 240 pp.), which could be The Skin of Chagrin or The Skin of Shagreen – it’s a double cognate!  But the French pun is impossible in English, and who knows what “shagreen” is, and anyways those titles are terrible.  Maybe The Chagrin Skin.  No, that’s worse.  The wild ass’s skin is also a skin of sadness because as we all know, I hope, you should never mess with wish-granting magic.

The Wild Ass’s Skin has a terrific dueling scene at the end.  More advice: do not demand a duel from a guy with a magical wishing skin.

The “philosophical” core of the novel, and the story, really, is the cursed man’s attempt to set up a life where he never, even moment to moment, wishes for anything, allowing him to avoid the wishing skin.  Balzac subscribed to some kind of idea of “vitalism,” in which life is not just lived but “used up” somehow.  The Wild Ass’s Skin is a literalization of that idea.

The Wild Ass’s Skin is easy to recommend.  If I am reading the websites correctly, Penguin Classics only has seven Balzac titles in print now, and Oxford World’s Classics only has three (!), but both have The Wild Ass’s Skin.

“Melmoth réconcilié” (“Melmoth Reconciled,” 1835, 40 pp.) also features magical wishes.  The Melmoth in the title is the same as in Charles Maturin’s great nested-story fantasy novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820 – so, today, a blatant copyright violation).  Melmoth made a deal with the devil, gaining superpowers and long life in exchange for damnation – unless! – he can find someone else to take on the powers and curse.  Which he never can, because everyone else in the world is too pure, which seems unlikely.  Balzac laughs and has Melmoth pawn off his damnation on another sucker, an embezzler who then wanders Paris having nightmarish adventures and eventually sells the whole package off to someone else, after which the Devil’s Pact is formalized for sale on the stock exchange where it circulates widely, explaining a lot.  An eminently Balzacian ending.

In 1836 or so, Balzac became deeply interested in opera, and wrote a pair of stories, one even published in a music journal, about opera:

“Gambara” (1837, 60 pp.), built around Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable (1831)

“Massimilla Doni” (1837, 80 pp.), about Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto (1818)

And when I say “about,” I mean that each story contains a long summary and musical description of each opera, delivered by characters, but still, music criticism, at length.  Tedious.  “Gambara” has a story in which a cynic exploits an alcoholic composer in order to sleep with his wife – very Balzacian – but “Massimilla Doni” barely has a story at all.  It’s interest, if the Rossini talk is not doing it for you, is in the descriptions of Venice and its palace and opera houses.  Balzac loves the vibrant Italian audiences.  He tosses in a “Frenchman,” not part of the story at all, just to have a French foil for the opera talk.

Maybe a more devoted opera lover would get more out of these, or perhaps the discourse would just seem archaic.  I don’t know.  I am quick to argue that when Balzac writes about painting he is also writing about writing, about his own art, but these opera stories seemed more direct: outpourings of enthusiastic amateur love of opera.

Boy, these are even more like pure note-taking than usual.


  1. Thank you for blogging regularly again, AR(T).

    Julien Gracq (Oeuvres complètes II, La Pléiade, En lisant, en écrivant, pp. 569-570) patronizes:

    "It would seem that, among the great four greats of the French novel, Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert and Proust, Balzac is the one who has been deserted the most by critics. There are far fewer studies dedicated to him than to any of the other three [...]; Balzac is reputed to be the exemplary French novelist, just like Victor Hugo is the exemplary poet. Both are considered to be the standards and both are granted the same degree of interest given to the standard platinum iridium meter bar.
    I must confess that even I, when I feel like reopening his pages, it is to those one might consider more or less atypical among his works that I turn to: not to Lost Illusions, La Cousine Bette or Eugénie Grandet; but to Les Chouans, Le Lys dans la vallée, Béatrix. Standard Balzac only causes a moderate pleasure to arise in me upon rereading."

    Stefan Zweig, more pragmatical when it comes to books and their pleasures, wrote "Three Masters: Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky". It's interesting how those three masters are usually disliked by their languages' finickiest stylists. See Gracq on Balzac above; Nabokov's negative views on Dostoevsky are well known as is Virginia Woolf's distaste for most of Dickens.

    I'm on team 3 Masters. I simply adore La Peau de chagrin/Le Lys dans la vallée, Crime and Punishment/Demons, and Little Dorrit/Pickwick Papers.

  2. Oh, thank you. It is nice to see you here.

    That line about the meter bar is pretty good.

    Balzac can be a klutz. Even I can see that in his French, so Flaubert's ambivalence about Balzac is easy to understand. But he clearly loved the pure novelist side of Balzac, apart from the style, the invention and the fullness of the Balzacian world.

    It does not seem that hard to reconcile these things. It is possible, thought, that I am losing - have lost - my sense of discrimination.

  3. Man, I did not like La Peau de Chagrin (I found it "quite silly and badly written"), but I'm glad others can enjoy its virtues.

    I'll have to try Melmoth; it sounds like fun.

  4. The long Petronius / Rabelais-style banquet scene that follows the acquisition of the shagreen is my pick for silly / badly written low point.

    Balzac's stories are such weird hybrids that some ridiculous aspect is almost inevitable, part of the art. The idea that "realism" is useful with Balzac has its points (those places, like the protagonist's attic room), but really, Balzac is an opera writer - big and crazy.

    1. True, and that's something I often have trouble with -- the melodramatic Dostoevsky had to win me over.