Saintsbury Introduction, Volume XV – Part II

The Gondreville Mystery (Une Ténébreuse  Affaire)
Parisians in the Country: The Muse of the Department (Les Parisiens en province: La Muse du Département)

 

While I was engaged in preparing these Introductions, I saw in an English newspaper, of some literary as well as other repute, remarks on Balzac as compared with some writers of crime and detective stories in the present day. According to a habit which alternates with the other habit of reverencing predecessors exaggeratedly, the reviewer spoke with the utmost contempt of Balzac’s work, and opined that contemporary English practitioners of the art had made progress in it, justifying something like John P. Robinson’s contempt for the persons “down in Judee.” It is fair to say that what these remarks were immediately based upon was not Une Ténébreuse Affaire, but Ferragus, which is a much cruder specimen of the author’s power. But, still, I am inclined to think that this generous, and probably young, partisan of the present was a little hard on the poor old past. In the first place, it is something to be the original and not the copy; and it is certain as anything in history that Balzac begat Poe, and that Poe begat all our English crime-novelists. To raise the flower when the seed can be bought at any shop round the corner is, as Lord Tennyson once remarked, not an extraordinarily difficult affair; to which it may be added that to raise ever bigger and brighter-colored flowers by ingenious crossing and some pains is also not beyond the reach of intolerably limited powers. It is very different to make the first cross, to fish the murex up, if I may shift the comparison and the quotation.

Perhaps, too, it is a little hasty to make so sure that things have actually improved. I speak on this point with diffidence, having no very special love for any of these detective stories as such. But I think you may be too ingenious and recondite in a detective story as well as elsewhere, and that the picture is not always the best where the painter has taken the most elaborate pains.

However this may be, he must, I think, be a difficult person to please who is not pleased with  Une Ténébreuse Affaire, the only blot on which seems to me to be the early conduct of Michu, which was rather calculated to attract than to avert suspicion. Otherwise the games and counter-games in which Corentin figures justify that personage’s reputation much better than  Les Chouans (where his part is practically played for him by others), and rank with the most ingenious exercises of the kind. In this story, moreover, while he had attained greater technical skill than in Les Chouans, Balzac still retained enough of his old romantic enthusiasm to insert a stronge element of nobility and pathos into the story, by means of the devotion of Michu and the heroism of Laurence. His admixture of reasons of state may be regarded with different feelings by different persons, and Marsay’s key to the whole business may or may not seem superfluous. But it must be remembered that in Balzac’s time the opinion which Miss Martha Buskbody so uncompromisingly expressed at the end of Old Mortality – the opinion that the author ought to account for everything and mention, at least summarily, the ultimate fate of everybody – was still very largely held by readers, and not discountenanced by critics. Moreover, the practice gave Balzac an opportunity of keying the story on to that fantastic society of wits, statesmen, dandies, and great ladies which he so fondly cherished, and which had such an influence on his time, that as Sainte-Beuve, no friendly witness, tells us, a Venetian coterie actually adopted it as a model, and played out the parts of the Marsays and the Maufrigneuses with all gravity in real life.

We may, however, leave the wiles of Corentin and Peyrade, the evidence of the crusts and the bottle-wax, the extremely ingenious confusion between the two imprisonments and the rest of the cat-and-mouse business, to those who appreciate it, with nothing more than a repetition of the remark that Balzac, if not the absolute inventor (for nobody ever is the absolute inventor of anything), was the first really great novelist to devote himself to matter of this kind. There will always be a sufficiency of good wits to hold that he has not been surpassed, to say no more, by any other novelists, great or small, since, especially in the little fishing or feeling passage-of-arms between Corentin and the cure. And we may leave to other tastes the romantic interest of the actual story.

Une Ténébreuse Affaire appeared with chapter divisions in the newspaper Le Commerce during January and February 1841, and as published by Souverain as a book in 1843. It was placed in the Comédie three years later.

________________________

Although La Muse du Département is an important work, it cannot be spoken of in quite unhesitating terms. It contains, indeed, in the personage of Lousteau, one of the very most elaborate of Balzac’s portraits of a particular type of men of letters. The original is said to have been Jules Janin, who is somewhat disadvantageously contrasted here and elsewhere with Claude Vignon, said on the same rather vague authority to be Gustave Planche. Both Janin and Planche are now too much forgotten, but in both more or less (and in Lousteau very much”more”) Balzac cannot be said to have dealt mildly with his bête noire, the critical temperament. Lousteau, indeed, though not precisely a scoundrel, is both a rascal and a cad. Even Balzac seems alittle shocked at his lettre de faire part in reference to his mistress’ child; and it is seldom possible to discern in any of his proceedings the most remote approximation to the conduct of a gentleman. But then, as we have seen, and shall see, Balzac’s standard for the conduct of his actual gentlemen was by no means fantastically exquisite or discouragingly high, and in the case of his Bohemians it was accommodating to the utmost degree. He seems to despise Lousteau, but rather for his insouciance and neglect of his opportunities of making himself a position than for anything else.

I have often felt disposed to ask those who would assert Balzac’s absolute infallibility as a gynaecologist to give me a reasoned criticism of the heroine of this novel. I do not entirely “figure to myself” Dinah de la Baudraye. It is perfectly possible that she should have loved a “sweep” like Lousteau; there is certainly nothing extremely unusual in a woman loving worse sweeps even than he. But would she have done it, and having done it, have also done what she did afterwards? These questions may be answered differently; I do not answer them in the negative myself, but I cannot give them an affirmative answer with the conviction which I should like to show.

Among the minor characters, the substitut de Clagny has a touch of nobility which contrasts happily enough with Lousteau’s unworthiness. Bianchon is as good as usual: Balzac always gives Bianchon a favorable part. Madame Piédefer is one of the numerous instances in which the unfortunate class of mothers-in-law atones for what are supposed to be its crimes against the human race; and old La Baudraye, not so hopelessly repulsive in a French as he would be in an English novel, is a shrewd old rascal enough.

But I cannot think the scene of the Parisians blaguing the Sancerrois a very happy one. That it is in exceedingly bad taste might not matter so very much; Balzac would reply, and justly, that he had not intended to represent it as anything else. That the fun is not very funny may be a matter of definition and appreciation. But what scarcely admits of denial or discussion is that it is tyrannously too long. The citations of Olympia are pushed beyond measure, beyond what is comic, almost beyond the license of farce; and the comments,which remind one rather of the heavy jesting on critics in Un Prince de la Boheme and the short-lived Revue Parisienne, are labored to the last degree. The part of Nathan, too, is difficult to appreciate exactly, and altogether the book does not seem to me a réussite.

La Muse du Département has a rather more complicated record than its companion piece in Les Parisiens en Province, L’Illustre Gaudissart. It appeared at first, not quite complete and under the title of Dinah Piédefer in Le Messager during March and April 1843, and was almost immediately published as a book, with works of other writers, under the general title of Les Mystères de Province, and accompanied by some other works of its own author’s. It had four parts and fifty-two chapters in Le Messager, an arrangement which was but slightly altered in the volume form. M. de Lovenjoul gives some curious indications of mosaic work in it, and some fragments which do not now appear in the text.

George Saintsbury

 

From The Works of Honoré de Balzac, Avil Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1901, University Edition.

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