Saintsbury Introduction, Volume XVI – Part I

The Member for Arcis (Le Député d’Arcis)

 

Le Député d’Arcis, like the still less generally known Les Petits Bourgeois, stands on a rather different footing from the rest of Balzac’s work. Both were posthumous, and both, having been left unfinished, were completed by the author’s friend, Charles Rabou. Rabou is not much known nowadays as a man of letters; he must not be confused with the writer Hippolyte Babou, the friend of Baudelaire, the reputed inventor of the title Fleurs de Mal, and the author of some very acute articles in the great collection of Crepet’s Poètes Francais. But he figures pretty frequently in association of one kind or another with Balzac, and would appear to have been thoroughly imbued with the scheme and spirit of the Comédie. At the same time, it does not appear that even the indefatigable and most competent M. de Lovenjoul is perfectly certain where Balzac’s labors end and those of Rabou begin.

It would seem, however (and certainly internal evidence has nothing to say on the other side), that the severance, or rather the junction, must have taken place somewhere about the point where, after the introduction of Maxime de Trailles, the interest suddenly shifts altogether from the folk of Arcis and the conduct of their election to the hitherto unknown Comte de Sallenauve. It would, no doubt, be possible, and even easy, to discover in Balzac’s undoubted work – for instance, in Le Curé de Village and Illusions Perdues – instances of shiftings of interest nearly as abrupt and of changes in the main centre of the story nearly as decided. Nor is it possible, considering the weakness of constructive finish which always marked Balzac, to rule out offhand the substitution, after an unusually lively and business-like beginning, of the nearly always frigid scheme of letters, topped up with a conclusion in which, with very doubtful art, as many personages of the Comédie, and even direct references to as many of its books as possible, are dragged in. But it is nearly as possibly certain that he would never have left things in such a condition, and I do not even think that he would ever have arranged them in quite the same state, even as an experiment.

The book belongs to the Champenois or Arcis-sur-Aube series, which is so brilliantly opened by Une Ténébreuse Affaire. It is curious and worth notice, as showing the conscientious fashion in which Balzac always set about his mature work that though his provincial stories are taken from parts of France widely distant from one another, the selection is by no means haphazard, and arranges itself with ease into groups corresponding to certain haunts or sojourns of the author. There is the Loire group, furnished by his youthful remembrances of Tours and Saumur, and by later ones down to the Breton coast. There is the group of which Alencon and the Breton-Norman frontiers are the field, and the scenery of which was furnished by early visits of which we know little, but the fact of the existence of which is of the first importance, as having given birth to the Chouans, and so to the whole Comédie in a way. There is the Angoumois-Limousin group, for which he informed himself during his frequent visits to the Carraud family. And lastly, there is one of rather wider extent, and not connected with so definite a centre, but including the Moran, Upper Burgundy, and part of Champagne, which seems to have been commended to him by his stay at Sache and other places. This was his latest set of studies, and to this Le Député d’Arcis of course belongs. To round off the subject, it is noteworthy that no part of the coast except a little in the north, with the remarkable exceptions of the scenes of La Recherche de l’Absolu and one or two others; nothing in the greater part of Brittany and Normandy; nothing in Guienne, Gascony, Languedoc, Provence, or Dauphine, seems to have attracted him. Yet some of these scenes – and with some of them he had meddled in the Days of Ignorance – are the most tempting of any in France to the romancer, and his abstention from them is one of the clearest proofs of his resolve to speak only of that he did know.

The certainly genuine part of the present book is, as certainly, not below anything save his very best work. It belongs, indeed, to the most minute and “meticulous” part of that work, not to the bolder and more ambitious side. There is no Goriot, no Eugénie Grandet, not even any Corentin or Vautrin, hardly so much as a Rastignac about it. But the good little people of Arcis-sur-Aube are represented “in their natural,” as Balzac’s great compatriot would have said, with extraordinary felicity and force. The electoral meeting in Madame Marion’s house is certainly one of the best things in the whole Comédie for completeness within its own limits, and none of the personages, official or other, can be said to suffer from that touch of exaggeration which, to some tastes, interferes with the more celebrated and perhaps more generally attractive delineations of Parisian journalism in Illusions Perdues and similar books. In fact, in what he wrote of Le Député d’Arcis, Balzac seems to have had personal knowledge to go upon, without any personal grievances to revenge or any personal crazes to enforce. The latter, it is true, often prompted his sublimest work; but the former frequently helped to produce his least successful. In Le Député d’Arcis he is at the happy mean. It is not necessary to give an elaborate bibliography of it, for, as has been said, only the “Election” part is certainly Balzac’s. This appeared in a newspaper, L’Union Monarchique, for April and May 1847.

George Saintsbury

 

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

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