The Chouans (Les Chouans)
A Passion in the Desert (Une Passion dans le désert)
When, many years after its original publication, Balzac reprinted Les Chouans as a part of the Comédie Humaine, he spoke of it in the dedication to his old friend M. Théodore Dablin as “perhaps better than its reputation.” He probably referred to the long time which had passed without a fresh demand for it; for, as has been pointed out in the General Introduction to this Series of translations, it first made his fame, and with it he first emerged from the purgatory of anonymous hack-writing. It would therefore have argued a little ingratitude in him had he shown himself dissatisfied with the original reception. The book, however, has, it may be allowed, never ranked among the special favorites of Balzacians; and though it was considerably altered and improved from its first form, it has certain defects which are not likely to escape any reader. In it Balzac was still trying the adventure-novel, the novel of incident; and though he here substitutes a nobler model – Scott, for whom he always had a reverence as intelligent as it was generous – for the Radcliffian or Lewisian ideals of his nonage, he was still not quite at home. Some direct personal knowledge or experience of the matters he wrote about was always more or less necessary to him; and the enthusiasm with which he afterwards acknowledged, in a letter to Beyle, the presence of such knowledge in that writer’s military passages, confesses his own sense of inferiority.
It is not, however, in the actual fighting scenes, though they are not of the first class, that the drawbacks of Les Chouans lie. Though the present version is not my work, I translated the book some years ago, a process which brings out much more vividly than mere reading the want of art which distinguishes the management of the story. There are in it the materials of a really first-rate romance. The opening skirmish, the hairbreadth escape of Montauran at Alencon, the scenes at Vivetière, not a few of the incidents of the attack on Fougères, and, above all, the finale, are, or at least might have been made, of the most thrilling interest. Nor are they by any means ill supported by the characters. Hulot is one of the best of Balzac’s grognard heroes; Montauran may be admitted by the most faithful and jealous devotee of Scott to be a jeune premier who unites all the qualifications of his part with a freedom from the flatness which not unfrequently characterizes Sir Walter’s own good young men, and which drew from Mr. Thackeray the equivocal encomium that he should like to be mother-in-law to several of them. Marche-à-Terre is very nearly a masterpiece; and many of the minor personages are excellent for their work. Only Corentin (who, by the way, appears frequently in other books later) is perhaps below what he ought to be. But the women make up for him. Mademoiselle de Verneuil has admirable piquancy and charm; Madame du Gua is a good bad heroine; and Francine is not a mere soubrette of the machine-made pattern by any means.
How is it, then, that the effect of the book is, as many readers unquestionably feel it to be, “heavy”? The answer is not very difficult; it is simply that Balzac had not yet learned his trade, and that this particular trade was not exactly his. He had a certain precedent in some – not in all, nor in the best – of Scott’s books, and in many of his other models, for setting slowly to work; and he abused that precedent here in the most merciless manner. If two-thirds of the first chapter had been cut away, and the early part of the second had been not less courageously thinned, the book would probably have twice the hold that it at present has on the imagination. As it is, I have known some readers (and I have no doubt that they are fairly representative) who honestly avowed themselves to be “choked off” by the endless vacillations and conversations of Hulot at the “Pilgrim,” by the superabundant talk at the inn, and generally by the very fault which, as I have elsewhere noticed, Balzac represents in a brother novelist, the fault of giving the reader no definite grasp of story. Balzac could not deny himself the luxury of long conversations; but he never had and at this time had less than at any other, the art which Dumas possessed in perfection – the art of making the conversation tell the story. Until, therefore, the talk between the two lovers on the way to the Vivetière, the action is so obscure, so broken by description and chat, and so little relieved, except in the actual skirmish and wherever Marche-à-Terre appears, by real business, that it cannot but be felt as fatiguing. It can only be promised that if the reader will bear up or skip intelligently till this point he will not be likely to find any fault with the book afterwards. The jour sans lendemain is admirable almost throughout.
This unfortunate effect is considerably assisted by the working of one of Balzac’s numerous and curious crochets. Those who have only a slight acquaintance with the Comédie Humaine must have noticed that chapter-divisions are for the most part wanting in it, or are so few and of such enormous length, that they are rather parts than chapters. It must not, however, be supposed that this was an original peculiarity of the author’s, or one founded on any principle. Usually, though not invariably, the original editions of his longer novels, and even of his shorter tales, are divided into chapters, with or without headings, like those of other and ordinary mortals. But when he came to codify and arrange the Comédie, he, for some reason which I do not remember to have seen explained anywhere in his letters, struck out these divisions, or most of them, and left the books solid, or merely broken up into a few parts. Thus Le Dernier Chouan (the original book) had thirty-two chapters, though it had no chapter-headings, while the remodeled work as here given has only three, the first containing nearly a fifth, the second nearly two-fifths, and the third not much less than a half of the whole work.
Now, everybody who has attended to the matter must see that this absence of chapters is a great addition to the heaviness in the case where a book is exposed to the charge of being heavy. The named chapters of Dumas supply something like an argument of the whole book; and even the unnamed ones of Scott lighten, punctuate, and relieve the course of the story. It may well be that Balzac’s sense that “the story” with him was not the first, or anything like the first consideration, had something to do with his innovation. But I do not think it improved his books at any time, and in the more romantic class of them it is a distinct disadvantage.
Le Dernier Chouan ou La Bretagne en 1800 first appeared in March 1829, published in four volumes by Canel, with a preface (afterwards suppressed) bearing date the 15th January of the same year. Its subsequent form, with the actual title, threw the composition back to August 1827, and gave Fougères itself as the place of composition. This revised form, or second edition, appeared in 1834 in two volumes, published by Vimont. When, twelve years later, it took rank in the Comédie Humaine as part of the Scenes de la Vie Militaire a second preface was inserted, which in its turn was cancelled by the author.
Une Passion dans le Désert is the only other Scene of Military Life. There is no satisfactory explanation why Balzac so limited this section of the Comédie. On a later consideration possibly he mighthave included a story like Le Colonel Chabert. Probably he contemplated writing at some future time new stories of adventure. But on the other hand, his own realized lack of success in the warlike scenes of his Œuvres de Jeunesse may have given him a perpetual distaste for this species of story. This distaste, however, if present, should have been outweighed by the fact that to Les Chouans – crude though it may be – is due his first success as an author.
Une Passion dans le Désert has the date of 1832, only five years after the appearance of Les Chouans, but it bears abundant testimony of a much firmer grasp of hand; it leaves one with the impression that had the maturer Balzac dealt with events of strife more extensively, he would perhaps have made a success of Military Life approaching more nearly that of Parisian Life or of Philosophical Studies. Still this is mere speculation, for the mature Balzac lent himself to the scrutiny and analysis of real life about him, rather than to the conjuring up of imaginary action on the field of adventure. With the former he felt and became familiar; with the latter he was never distinctly at ease.
While marred somewhat by a touch of ultra things, Une Passion dans le Désert is a vivid story, told with much terseness and effect. The description of the desert is unique in its way, showing strongly the author’s power of visualization.
From The Works of Honoré de Balzac, Avil Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1901, University Edition.