Sunday, May 2, 2010

La Canne of M. de Balzac (1836)

La Canne de M. de Balzac is a curious little book that breaks the limits of several genres. It starts as a kind of urban picaresque novel.

The hero, a newcomer to Paris, tries in vain to get a position. The joke is that this competent, well-educated, unassuming fellow has two big handicaps: his absurdly romantic name –Tancrède Dorimont–and second (and more important), he is drop dead gorgeous, so much so that his instantly taken for a fop, a dandy, a seducer of wives, mothers, and daughters, un belliatre, un miriflor. The plot of the beginning of the novel indicates how that very handsomeness, which he thinks an advantage, is seen as a threat to each of his potential employers.

In the second half of the book, Tancrède ends up marrying an innocent country girl who has some reputation as a poet – on some level, a typical courtship romance.

But the novel is overall a fantasy store of the Arabian Nights variety, thanks to the eponymous cane of Honoré de Balzac. Our hero, frustrated after his ill-success in finding employment, goes to the Opera. There his eyes fall upon this massive (phallic, we would say) cane, “sorte de massue, des turquoises, de l’or, des ciselures merveilleuses” (a sort of club, decorated with turquoises, with gold, and with marvelous engravings). When he asks another audience member, who is the man carrying the cane and he learns it is the famous author Balzac (who was at point of his early fame, with Eugénie Grandet, La Peau de chagrin. and Père Goriot recently published.

It turns out the cane is magical, and allows the user, by switching it to the left hand, to become invisible. One thing leads to another, and Tancrède eventually is allowed to borrow the cane. He uses it to sit in on a government meeting – and make lots of money in the stock market based on inside information. He spies on a would-be mistress. He loses the cane and "hilarity ensures" when other, unknowingly, switch it to their left hands. And finally he visits, uninvited and unseen, a poetry reading by Alphonse de Lamartine and meets the girl. He follows her invisibly, making her believe she is fantasizing about an ideal, handsome lover. Finally they marry and he gives the cane back to Balzac.

All pleasant but pretty minor. The book does not really give s much of a role to the two famous, non-fictional characters, Balzac and Lamartine, but the mixture of real, living persons with fictional ones has to be something of an innovation.

The discovery of the cane leads to a consideration of Balzac’s new-fangled realism:
M. de Balzac, comme les princes populaires qui se déguisent pour visiter la cabane du pauvre et les palais du riche qu’ils veulent éprouver, M. de Balzac se cache pour observer ; il regarde, il regarde des gens qui se croient seuls, qui pensent comme jamais on ne les a vus penser ; il observe des génies qu’il surprend au saut du lit, des sentiments en robe de chambre, des vanités en bonnet de nuit, des passions en pantoufles, des fureurs en casquettes, des désespoirs en camisoles, et puis il vous met tout cela dans un livre

(M. de Balzac, like those princes of popular fable who disguise themselves in order to visit the cabins of the poor and the palaces of the rich whose lives they want to experience, M. de Balzac hides himself in order to observe; he watches; he watches people who think they are alone, who think in ways that one has never seen them think; he observes geniuses who his surprises as they leap from bed, feelings in dressing gowns, vanities in night bonnets, tantrums in night caps, and despair in negligees., and then he puts all of that in a book, for you.)
A joke of course, but a real indication of the wonder of Balzac’s acuity of understanding of a wide range of people and their private lives, a big break from both sentimental and gothic novels that precede it. Unfortunately, La Canne de M. Balzac does not even begin to approach Balzac.

By the way, the author, Mme. de Girardin (née Delphine Gay) saw some success as a romancer, dramatist, and poet, and she held a salon where, Balzac, Gautier, Hugo, and Musset were guest. She was married to a well-known journalist and politician, Émile de Girardin.

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