The Quest of the Absolute (La recherche de l’Absolu)
The Unknown Masterpiece (Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu)
The Maranas (Les Marana)
The Executioner (El Verdugo)
The Conscript (Le Réquisitionnaire)
The volume of the old edition of the Comedie Humaine, which opened with La Recherche de l’Absolu, together with that generally entitled Les Marana, contains the cream and flower of Balzac as a story-teller; and the first excels the second in showing the fiery heat and glow of the author’s imagination. The chief of the minor elements, Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu, has seemed to some the actual masterpiece of the author.
La Recherche de l’Absolu is, as has been said, a novel in itself. Taking minor points only, it is a masterpiece. That there is a certain parallelism, probably unconscious, between the way in which Balthazar Claes as unconsciously kills his wife, and the way in which Monsieur Grandet kills his, is certainly no drawback to the book; for the repetition, if it is a repetition, only shows how genius can repeat. Indeed, there is the same demonstration contained in the same books in the representation of the diverse martyrdoms of Madame Claes and her daughter Marguerite, fatal in the former case, happily changed in the latter. In no book is Balzac’s faculty of Dutch drawing, as far as scenes and details go, more brilliantly shown; in none are the minor characters – from the famulus Lemulquinier, with his fatal belief in his master’s madness, downwards – better; while Marguerite Claes and her mother, especially Marguerite, are by common consent to be ranked among Balzac’s greatest triumphs in portraying “honest women.”
But these things, though they illustrate the general principle that the presence of a great central interest and figure will radiate greatness and interest on its surroundings, would contribute comparatively little to the effect of the book if it were not for the Seeker after the Absolute himself. Nowhere, perhaps, has the hopeless tyranny of the fixed idea, the ferocious (not exactly selfish) absorption in the pursuit of a craze, been portrayed with quite the same power as here. And we know and feel that the energy, the fire, the perfection of the handling are due to sympathy – that Balzac a few generations earlier would have sought the Philosopher’s Stone with the same desperate energy as Balthazar. Probably nothing but his prior attachment to literary work prevented him from doing something similar; while actually, and as it was, he kept himself in lifelong difficulties by no very different persistence in the corresponding, if more ignoble, Game of Speculation.
I have just said that the tyranny of the ideal has nowhere been more successfully portrayed than in La Recherche de l’Absolu; but there is perhaps one exception, and it is Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu, which should be carefully compared with the larger fiction. The attraction of this wonderful and terrible piece for all who have anything to do with the things of the spirit, whether in the way of criticism or in the way of creation, can hardly be exaggerated. I remember many years ago spending half an evening in discussing, in a sort of amœbean strain, its merits with the late Mr. Stevenson; and everybody knows the compliment which a distinguished American writer has paid it by attempting a sort of paraphrase of the original. The same interest is present here and in La Recherche, but it is a little complicated, a little refined upon. Here, too, there is the sorcery of the ideal, the frenzied passion for attainment and perfection. But here there is a special nuance almost as closely connected with Balzac’s individuality as the general scheme. We know that the mania of constant retouching, of adding strokes, was a danger of his own; that he did actually indulge in it to an extent very prejudicial to his pecuniary interest, and perhaps not always advantageous to the effect of his work, though the artist in words is hardly exposed to any such absolutely hopeless catastrophe in such a case as is the artist in line and color.
Yet, wonderful as this is, it cannot in its limited space, and with its intensely concentrated interest, vie with the amplitude, the variety, the dignity of the Recherche. Balzac might have made this too long: he was not always proof against that temptation. But in it, as in Eugénie Grandet, with which it has been already compared, he has hit the exact mean between a short tale and a long novel, has not sinned by digression and episode, has hardly sinned by undue indulgence in detail. The interest is perhaps remoter from the general human understanding than that of Eugénie and one or two others. But it is handled with equal mastery, and the effect is at least equally good.
It is not, of course, that a knowledge of Balzac’s own peculiarities adds anything to the sense of the artistic eminence of these two stories. That would be clear if we know nothing whatever about the other part of the matter. But it cannot be regarded as uninteresting that we should thus know the secret of the furia, the “nobler gust” of sympathy and enjoyment with which the writer, consciously or unconsciously, must have set about these two great, and in his own work, almost incomparable things.
The group of short stories which, in the first complete edition of the Comédie, opens with Les Marana, contains, as I have said, with that in which La Recherche de l’Absolu leads off, the very finest productions of the author on a small scale. Almost all the pieces herein contained were early work, written when Balzac was under the combined excitement of his emergence from the valley of the shadow in which he had toiled so long, and of the heat and stress of the political and literary Revolution of 1830. All of them show his very freshest matured power, not as yet in the slightest degree sicklied o’er by any excessive attempt to edify or systematize. It is true that they are called Études Philosophiques, and that it puzzles the adroitest advocate to make out any very particular claim that they have to the title. But “philosophy,” a term pretty freely abused in all languages, had in French been treated during the eighteenth century and earlier as a sort of “blessed word,” which might mean anything, from the misbeliefs and disbeliefs of those who did not believe in the devil to the pursuits of those who meddled with test-tubes and retorts. Balzac seems generally to have meant by it something that was not mere surface-literature – that was intended to make the reader think and feel. In this sense very little of his own work is unworthy of the title, and we certainly need not refuse it to Les Marana and its companions.
The only objection that I can think of to the title-tale is a kind of uncertainty in the plan of the character of Juana. It is perfectly proper that she should fall an unsophisticated victim to the inherited tendencies (let it be remembered that Balzac worked this vein with discretion long before it was tediously overworked by literary Darwinians), to her own genuine affection, and to the wiles of Montefiore. It is quite right, as well as satisfactory, that she should refuse her seducer when she discovers the baseness of his motives. It is natural enough, especially in a southern damsel, that she should submit to the convenient cloak of marriage with Diard, and even make him a good and affectionate wife afterwards. But Balzac seems to me – perhaps I am wrong – to have left us in undue doubt whether she killed Diard purely out of Castilian honor, or partly as a sort of revenge for the sufferings she had undergone in enduring his love. A mixture of the two would be the finer and the truer touch, and therefore it is probable that Balzac meant it; but I think he should have indicated it, not by any clumsy labeling or explanation, but by something “leading up.” It may, however, seem that this is a hypercriticism, and certainly the tale is fine enough.
The fantastic horror of Adieu may seem even finer to some, but a trifle overwrought to others. Balzac, who had very little literary jealousy in his own way and school, made a confession of enthusiastic regret afterwards that he, Balzac, could not attain to the perfection of description of the Russian retreat which Beyle had achieved. Both were observer-idealists, and required some touch of actual experience to set their imaginations working, an advantage which, in this case, Balzac did not possess, and Beyle did. But I do not think that any one can reasonably find fault with the scenes on the Beresina here. The induction (to use Sackville’s good old word) of the story is excellent: and there is no part of a short story, hardly even the end, which is so important as the beginning; for if it fails to lay a grip on the reader, it is two to one that he will not go on with it. The character of Philip de Sucy is finely touched, and the contrast of the unconscious selfishness of his love with the uncle’s affection is excellent, and not in the least (as it might be) obtrusive. But the point of danger, of course, is in the representation of the pure animalized condition of the unhappy Countess, and her monkey-like tricks. It is never quite certain that a thing of this kind will not strike the reader, in some variable mood, with a sense of the disgusting, of the childish, of the merely fantastic, and any such sense in a tale appealing so strongly to the sense of “the pity of it” is fatal. I can only say that I have read Adieu at long intervals of time and in very different circumstances, and have not felt anything of the kind, or anything but the due pity and terror. The style, perhaps, is not entirely Balzac’s own; the interest is a little simple and elementary for him; but he shows that he can handle it as well as things more complicated and subtler.
Le Réquisitionnnaire, El Verdugo, and Un Drame au bord de la Mer * may be called, assuredly in no uncomplimentary or slighting sense, anecdotes rather than stories. The hinge, the centre, the climax, or the catastrophe (as from different points of view we may call it), is in all cases more important than the details and the thread of narrative. They are all good, but El Verdugo is far the best: the great incident of the father blessing his son and executioner in the words “Marquis [his own title] frappe sans peur, tu es sans reproche,” being worthy of Hugo himself.
* Un Drame au bord de la Mer is included in a later volume.
La Recherche de l’Absolu appeared in 1834, with seven chapter-divisions, as a Scène de la Vie Privée; was published by itself in 1839 by Charpentier; and took its final place as a part of the Comédie in 1845.
All the Marana group of stories appeared together in the fourth edition of the Études Philosophiques, 1835-1837. Most of them, however, had earlier appearances in periodicals and in the Romans et Contes Philosophiques, which preceded the Études. And in these various appearances they were subjected to their author’s usual processes of division and unification, of sub-titling and canceling sub-titles. Les Marana appeared first in the Revue de Paris for the last month of 1832 and the first of 1833; while it next made a show, oddly enough, as a Scène de la Vie Parisienne. Adieu appeared in the Mode during June 1830, and was afterwards for a time a Scène de la Vie Privée. Le Réquisitionnaire was issued by the Revue de Paris of February 23, 1831; El Verdugo by the Mode for January 29, 1830; L’Auberge Rouge in the Revue de Paris, August 1831; L’Elixir de longue Vie, by the same periodical for October 1830; Maître Cornélius, again by the same for December 1831. Un Drame au bord de la Mer alone appeared nowhere except in book form with its companions; but in 1843 it left them for a time (afterwards to return), and as La Justice Paternelle accompanied La Muse du Deéartement, Albert Savarus, and Facino Cane in a separate publication.
Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu appeared in the Artiste of 1831, before its present date, as a “Conte fantastique,” in two parts. It almost immediately became one of the Romans et Contes Philosophiques, passed in 1837 to the Études Philosophiques, was most unequally yoked for a time with Les Comédiens sans le savoir, and took definite rank in 1845 as usual.
NOTE.–L’Auberge Rouge, L’Elixir de longue Vie, Un Drame au bord de la Mer, and Maïtre Cornélius have been omitted, and postponed to a future volume, owing to exigencies of space.
From The Works of Honoré de Balzac, Avil Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1901, University Edition.