Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Balzac, L’Interdiction (1836)

The mild eccentricity of the marquis d'Espard consists of living separately from his wife; raising his two sons to be honest, hard-working, and humane; repaying reparations to a family once defrauded by his father; and indulging modestly in scholarly pursuits. All of which makes him crazy by Parisian standards.

His wife, on the other hand, has squandered the considerable money he left her with; refused to be a mother for her two adolescent sons lest her true age be made obvious to society; and had a series of lovers now including Eugène Rastignac. Her aim is to have her husband declared incompetent through a legal "interdiction" and to have his remaining fortune managed in her favor.

This novella contains some of the typical elements of a Balzac novella, elements we have seen in, for example, Le Colonel Chabert. First and most typical is a scheming, social-climbing middle-aged noblewoman. Second is a relatively innocent if old-fashioned husband who is the victim of the wife. Third, there is a raisonneur figure – here two, a doctor (Bianchon) and a judge (Popinot). These two, as the professional mediators and the witnesses/arbitrators of the ugly, secret life of Paris, can see through the illusions of apparent wealth and beauty that dazzle others.

The two raisonneurs in some ways prefigure Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes in their ability to see beneath the surface. Bianchon quickly assesses both the real age of the marquise and her hidden finical desperation.

As Bianchon tells the (willfully) less observant Rastignac:
Crois-moi, les médecins sont habitués à juger les hommes et les choses ; les plus habiles d'entre nous confessent l'âme en confessant le corps. Malgré ce joli boudoir où nous avons passé la soirée, malgré le luxe de cet hôtel, il serait possible que madame la marquise fût endettée.

Believe me, doctors are accustomed to judging people and things; the cleverest of us confess the soul by confessing the body. Despite the pretty boudoir, where we spent the evening, despite the luxury of this house, it is possible that the Marchioness is in debt.
Popinot, despite his living in a stator of personal filth and disarray (a typical Balzac theme), is even more perspicacious. He briefly interviews the principals in the case, sees through the lies of the wife, and quickly ferrets out the honesty of the husband.

Add to this the fact that Bianchon and Popinot are among the few kind characters of La Comédie humaine. Rgey both spend much of their time helping the deserving poor, Bianchon with his medical skills and Popinot as a prototypical microlender.

But unlike the usual detective tale, the discovery of tehhidden reality comes to naught, The marquise and her allies, aware of the skepticism of the judge, pull levers to have him taken off the case and put into the hands of a sympathetic judge. Justice, as so often in Balzac, favors the well-connected. And the few honest countercurrents to the sewer of Parisian society are once again thwarted. This ain't Dickens.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Balzac Le Colonel Chabert (1844)

Many of Balzac's novellas deal with the Bourbon restoration (1814-1830) and the predicament of the heroes of the Grande Armée on their return to France or (if they do not return) on their families. In La Bourse (1832). for example, the widow of a Napoleonic naval officer and her beautiful daughter live in poverty, denied the father's pension. In La Vendetta (1830),the young hero (a captain from the disbanded army), dies from starvation, along with his wife and child, for lack of a pension and the difficulty of obtaining a position. Others such as the hero of the La Duchessse de Langeais (1834) manage to resuscitate a military career after the Bourbon's come onto power.

In Le Colonel Chabert, the hero goes even further – he is a ghost come from the grave. After leading the charge that won the battle of Eylau (1807), Chabert is buried alive on the battlefield and counted among the dead heroes. After emerging and being nursed by German peasants, he combines years of illness and amnesia. By the time he walks back to France, Napoleon has been exiled, and his young, beautiful, and now rich widow has married into the newly emergent Bourbon aristocracy.

His wife, one of a battalion of ultra-wily social-climbing seductresses in Balzac , does not want this haggard specter to ruin her life. By dint of charm and wiles, she almost gets Chabert to sign away his rights, until he overhears her treachery. His reaction, instead of making trouble, id to renounce her and run off. He ends up in a home for indigent old soldiers, while his wife continues her social career.


1. This story is a kind of Martin Guerre-like narrative, with the reservation that Chabert, whatever the initial impression, is no impostor, Curiously, the French film Le Colonel Chabert (1994) stars the inevitable Gérard Depardieu, who also played Martin Guerre in a movie. I haven't seen the movie, but plan to.

2. Derville is Balzac's honest lawyer of the Comédie humaine (he has a major role in Gobseck (1830) and witnesses the treatment of Goriot). He is the stand-in for the novelist, the raisonneur, as he observes the ugly realities of family life in Paris.

The Comédie humane is summed up – that annals of unpunished domestic crimes – in what Derville says to a young colleague, before retiring permanently from Paris:
Combien de choses n’ai-je pas apprises en exerçant ma charge ! J’ai vu mourir un père dans un grenier, sans sou ni maille, abandonné par deux filles auxquelles il avait donné quarante mille livres de rente ! J’ai vu brûler des testaments ; j’ai vu des mères dépouillant leurs enfants, des maris volant leurs femmes, des femmes tuant leurs maris en se servant de l’amour qu’elles leur inspiraient pour les rendre fous ou imbéciles, afin de vivre en paix avec un amant. J’ai vu des femmes donnant à l’enfant d’un premier lit des goûts qui devaient amener sa mort, afin d’enrichir l’enfant de l’amour. Je ne puis vous dire tout ce que j’ai vu, car j’ai vu des crimes contre lesquels la justice est impuissante. Enfin, toutes les horreurs que les romanciers croient inventer sont toujours au-dessous de la vérité.

How many things have I learned while carrying out my trade! I've seen a father die in an attic, without a penny, abandoned bytwo daughters that he had given forty thousand livres of revenue to! I've seen wills burned; I've seen mothers stripping bare their children, husbands stealing firm their wives, women killing their husbands, using the love that they inspired to make them fools or imbeciles, in order to live undisturbed with their lovers. I've seem women giving their eldest child tastes that would lead to his death, in order to enrich their love child. I can't tell you all that I have seen, for I've seen crimes against which justice is powerless. In summary, all the horrors that the novelists believe they are making up fall short of the reality.