Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life: Vautrin’s Last Avatar (Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes: Le dernière Incarnation de Vautrin)
The Government Clerks (Les Employés)
As has been noted in the Introduction to the first volume of the Splendeurs et Miseres des Courtisanes, La dernière Incarnation de Vautrin, though forming, according to the author’s conception, an integral part of that work, stands in more ways than one aloof from it. It was much later written than the earlier parts, except Ou ménent les mauvais chemins, and it was later written even than that. Moreover, it marks in two different ways a much maturer stage of the author’s ideas as to heroic convicts – a stage in which, I think, it is not fanciful to detect a considerable reduction of the gigantesque element and a substitution of something else for it.
We may note this in two ways. In the earlier conception of the matter, as exemplified chiefly in Ferragus and Le Père Goriot, the heroic element considerably dominates the practical. In the one Balzac had shown an ex-convict defying society and executing a sort of private justice or injustice, just as he pleased. In the other he had adopted (and had maintained still later in an apologetic epistle to a newspaper editor, which will be found in his works) a notion of the criminal as of a sort of puissance du mal pervading and dominating society itself. In the present book, or section of a book, which, it must never be forgotten, was one of his very latest, things are adjusted to a much more actual level. The thieves’-latin which it contains is only an indirect symptom of this. Ainsworth in England and others in France had anticipated him notably in this. But indirectly it shows us that he had come down many stages from his earlier heights. Bourignard and the early Vautrin worked in clouds, afar and apart; they had little to do with actual life: in La dernière Incarnation de Vautrin we find ourselves face to face with the actual, or only slightly “disrealized” realities of convict life. Some of these details may be disgusting, but most of them, as we know from unromantic authorities, are tolerably true; and where truth is, there, with an artist like Balzac, art never fails. It is the drawback of the youthful poet or novelist that he is insufficiently provided with veracity, of the aging novelist or poet that inspiration and the faculty of turning fact into great fiction fail him. But there was no danger of this latter with the author, at nearly twenty years’ interval, of Le dernier Chouan and La Cousine Bette. He could only gain by the dispelling of illusion, and he could not lose by the practice of his craft.
Another and still more interesting mark of resipiscence is conveyed in the practical defeat of Vautrin and in his desertion to the side of society itself, which, we are given to understand, he never afterwards left, nor less perhaps in the virtual rebuff which Corentin (another héros du mal of the older time) receives at the end. The old betrayer of Mlle. de Verneuil is told in so many words that he can be dispensed with; the old enemy of society has to take its wages; the funds of la haute pègre are squandered on Lucien de Rubempré, just as any foolish heir might squander them, and the whole scheme of a conspiracy against order breaks down. True, Madame de Maufrigneuse and Madame de Sèrizy get their letters; but that is neither here nor there.
The most interesting scene in the book, I suppose, is that in which the scheme of the prison authorities for trapping Vautrin fails by dint of his adroitness, and the command of a strong mind over a weak one, as between him and the other convicts, to whom he had been a fraudulent trustee. It is not free from unsavory details, but the mastery of it quite exceeds its repulsiveness. It is worth noting, too, that Balzac shows how thoroughly he has mastered the principles of his art by intermixing this very success with evidences of Vautrin’s humanity after all. And of minor details there is not, I think, one more interesting in the book, while there are few more interesting in all Balzac, than the fact that in the opening interview between Camusot and his wife the author borrows from Guy Mannering the incident of Pleydell’s discovering the importance of Dirk Hatteraick’s pocketbook by the play of his countenance as his examiner passes from that to other things, and vice versâ. The fact is that Balzac was to the very last an ardent devotee of Sir Walter, and that – like all great novelists, I think, without exception, but not like M. Zola and some other persons both abroad and at home – he was perfectly alive to the fact that Scott’s workmanship, his analysis, his knowledge of human nature, and his use of it, are about as far from superficiality as the equator is from the pole. In construction and in style Scott was careless, and as it happens, Balzac was in neither respect impeccable. But in other ways the pupil had, and knew that he had, little advantage over the master except in a certain parade of motives and details, as well as (though not to a very great extent) in a greater comprehension of passion, and, of course, to a much greater extent in liberty of exhibiting that compassion. Let us read Balzac and admire Balzac as much as possible; but when any one talks of Scott as shallow in comparison with Balzac, let us leave the answer to Balzac himself.
(For bibliography, see Introduction to Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes.)
The long piece entitled Les Employés, which fills nearly two-thirds of the volume, has rather dubious claims to be called a novel or a story at all. Balzac, either from the fact of his father having been employed in the civil department of the army, or because he had been destined himself by kind family friends to the rond-de-cuir (the office-stool), or because he was a typical Frenchman – for while half the French nation sits on these stools, the other half divides its time between laughing at them and envying them – was always exceedingly intent on the ways and manners of government offices. One of the least immature scenes of his Œuvres de Jeunesse, the opening passage of Argow le Pirate, concerns the subject. The collection of his Œuvres Diverses, only of late years opened to the explorer who has less than libraries at his command, contains repeated returns to it, of which the Physiologie de L’Employé was the best known and most popular; and the novels proper are full of dealings with it. In this particular piece, indeed, Balzac has actually incorporated something from his earlier Physiologie, and has thus made it even less of a story than it was when it first appeared under the title of La Femme Supérieure. In that condition it was divided into three parts – Entre deux Femmes, Les Bureaux, and A qui la place. The later shape, with the additions just referred to, tended to overweight the middle part still more at the expense of the two ends; and as it stands, it is little more than a criticism, partly in argument, partly in dialogue, of administration and administrative methods, with a certain slight personal interest at both ends.
Les Employés was originally dated July 1836. It appeared in the Presse just a year after its composition, but was then called La Femme Supérieure, which name it kept on its publication by Werdet as a book in 1838. It was here enlarged, and had La Torpille (the first title of Esther or Comment aiment les Filles) and La Maison Nucingen for companions. At its first appearance in the Comédie, the actual title and La Femme Supérieure were given as alternatives, but later Les Employés displaced the other.
From The Works of Honoré de Balzac, Avil Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1901, University Edition.