The Celibates: A Bachelor’s Establishment (Les Célibataires: Un Ménage de garçon)
The second volume – the third part – of Les Célibataires takes very high rank among its companions. As in most of his best books, Balzac has set at work divers favorite springs of action, and has introduced personages of whom he has elsewhere given, not exactly replicas – he never did that – but companion portraits. And he has once more justified the proceeding amply. Whether he has not also justified the reproach, such as it is, of those who say that to see the most congenial expression of his fullest genius, you must go to his bad characters and not to the good, readers shall determine for themselves after reading the book.
It was the product of the year 1842, when the author was at the ripest of his powers, and after which, with the exception of Les Parents Pauvres, he produced not much of his very best save in continuations and rehandlings of earlier efforts. He changed his title a good deal, and in that MS. correction of a copy of the Comédie which has been taken, perhaps without absolutely decisive authority, as the basis of the Edition Definitive, he adopted La Rabouilleuse as his latest favorite. This, besides its quaintness, has undoubted merit as fixing the attention on one at least of the chief figures of the book, while Un Ménage de garçon only obliquely indicates the real purport of the novel. Jean-Jacques Rouget is a most unfortunate creature, who anticipates Baron Hulot as an example of absolute dependence on things of the flesh, plus a kind of cretinism, which Hulot, to do him justice, does not exhibit even in his worst degradation. But his “bachelor establishment,” though undoubtedly useful for the purposes of the story, might have been changed for something else, and his personality have been considerably altered, without very much affecting the general drift of the fiction.
Flore Brazier, on the other hand, the Rabouilleuse herself, is essential, and with Maxence Gilet and Philippe Bridau forms the centre of the action and the passion of the book. She ranks, indeed, with those few feminine types, Valérie Marneffe, La Cousine Bette, Eugénie Grandet, Béatrix, Madame de Maufrigneuse, and perhaps Esther Gobseck, whom Balzac has tried to draw at full length. It is to be observed that though quite without morals of any kind, she is not ab initio or intrinsically a she-fiend like Valérie or Lisbeth. She does not do harm for harm’s sake, nor even directly to gratify spite, greed, or other purely unsocial and detestable passions. She is a type of feminine sensuality of the less ambitions and restless sort. Given a decent education, a fair fortune, a good-looking and vigorous husband to whom she had taken a fancy, and no special temptation, and she might have been a blameless, merry, “sonsy” commère, and have died in an odor of very reasonable sanctity. Poverty, ignorance, the Rougets (father and son), Maxence Gilet, and Philippe Bridau came in her way, and she lived and died as Balzac has shown her. He has done nothing more “inevitable;” a few things more complete and satisfactory.
Maxence Gilet is a not much less remarkable sketch, though it is not easy to say that he is on the same level. Gilet is the man of distinct gifts, of some virtues, or caricatures of virtues, who goes to the devil through idleness, fulness of bread, and lack of any worthy occupation. He is extraordinarily unconventional for a French figure in fiction, even for a figure drawn by such a French genius as Balzac. But he is also hardly to be called a great type, and I do not quite see why he should have succumbed before Philippe as he did.
Philippe himself is more complicated, and, perhaps, more questionable. He is certainly one of Balzac’s “leurs du mal; he is studied and personally conducted from beginning to end with an extraordinary and loving care; but is he quite “of a piece”? That he should have succeeded in defeating the combination against which his virtuous mother and brother failed is not an undue instance of the irony of life. The defeat of such adversaries as Flore and Max has, of course, the merit of poetical justice and the interest of “diamond cut diamond.” But is not the terrible Philippe Bridau, the “Mephistopheles a cheval” of the latter part of the book, rather inconsistent with the common-place ne’er-do-well of the earlier? Not only does it require no unusual genius to waste money, when you have it, in the channels of the drinking-shop, the gaming-table, and elsewhere, to sponge for more on your mother and brother, to embezzle when they are squeezed dry, and to take to downright robbery when nothing else is left; but a person who, in the various circumstances and opportunities of Bridau, finds nothing better to do than these ordinary things, can hardly be a person of exceptional intellectual resource. There is here surely that sudden and unaccounted-for change of character which the second-rate novelist and dramatists may permit himself, but from which the first-rate should abstain.
This, however, may be an academic objection, and certainly the book is of first-class interest. The minor characters, the mother and brother, the luckless aunt with her combination at last turning up when the rascal Philippe has stolen her stake-money, the satellites and abettors of Max in the club of “La Désœuvrance,” the slightly theatrical Spaniard, and all the rest of them, are excellent. The book is an eminently characteristic one – more so, indeed, than more than one of those in which people are often invited to make acquaintance with Balzac.
The third story of Les Célibataires has a rather more varied bibliographical history than the others. The first part, that dealing with the early misconduct of Philippe Bridau, was published separately, as Les Deux Frères, in the Presse during the spring of 1841, and a year or so later in volumes. It had nine chapters with headings. The volume form also included under the same title the second part, which, as Un Ménage de garçon en Province, had been published in the same newspaper in the autumn of 1842. This had sixteen chapters in both issues, and in the volumes two part-headings – one identical with the newspaper title, and the other “A qui la Succession?” The whole book then took rank in the Comédie under the second title, Un Ménage de garçon, and retained this during Balzac’s life and long afterwards. In the Edition Définitive, as observed above, he had marked it as La Rabouilleuse, after having also thought of Le Bonhomme Rouget. For English use, the better known, though not last or best title, is clearly preferable, as it can be translated, while La Rabouilleuse cannot.
The other story included by the publishers in this volume is of equally high merit. It heads a group of stories in Scènes de la Vie Privée (cf. Index) which contains some of the author’s very best work; indeed, it contains very little that is much below his best. Honorine presents some of Balzac’s profoundest observations, better stated than is usual, or at least invariable, with him. The best of all are certain axioms, disputed rather than disputable, as to the difference between men’s and women’s love. The book suffers to some extent from that artistic fault of the recitation, rather than the story proper, to which he was so prone, and perhaps a little from the other proneness – to exaggerate and idealize good as well as ill. But it is – as his abomination, Sainte-Beuve, said of another matter – an essai noble; and it is not – as Sainte-Beuve also said of that matter which had nothing to do with Balzac – an essai pàle.
Honorine was rather a late book. It appeared in La Presse in the spring of 1843 with a motto from Mademoiselle de Maupin and in six headless chapters. A year later it was published in two volumes by Potter, with forty headed chapters or sections. In 1845 it took rank in the Scènes de la Vie Privée of the Comédie. It was then accompanied by Le Colonel Chabert, La Messe de l’Athée, and L’Interdiction, though they do not accompany it in the Edition Definitive.
From The Works of Honoré de Balzac, Avil Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1901, University Edition.